Movie Review: ‘Cinderella’ (2015)
Let’s face it, the name of the game right now is adaptations and Disney is no stranger to green-lighting live-action reboots for some of their most beloved properties. With Alice in Wonderland being a visual disaster of what not to do with a live-action remake I was a little concerned when I heard they were retooling such a small picture like Cinderella and turning it into an extravagant blockbuster. However that worry quickly washed away with the visionary Kenneth Branagh behind the lens and an assortment of talent in front of it as they took this classic tale and spun it in a way that breathed new life into the characters.
Rather than retell the story of Cinderella in a way we’re most familiar with Branagh picks and chooses the most rock solid elements but magnifies them and provides an emotional backstory. Cinderella’s parents play a pivotal role in who she grows up to be as a person and they highlight that with devastating loss for her and the audience. It’s this underlying theme of “having courage and being kind” that’s passed on to her from her mother and works its way into the film as the story’s foundation. We’re given a Prince who’s not just a Prince to woo our heroine but an apprentice learning to become a man in his own right. He’s given his own father/son dynamic that’s relatable to the audience but fleshes out an entirely new side of this character who was often one-note and forgettable. Hell we’re even given a bit of an exploration into the mindset of our Evil Stepmother that never feels unwarranted or that they’re grasping at straws, but instead completely worthy for who she is.
The love story that’s so memorable to Cinderella fans could’ve very easily strayed into forgettable territory but it’s the magnifying chemistry between Lilly James and Richard Madden that makes it work so beautifully. Rather than a Prince holding a ball to find his future Queen we’re given a Prince holding a search committee of sorts to find this wonderful girl he so desperately wants to see again. This isn’t love at first sight but a story of two familiar people who meet by chance and are drawn to one another. They want to know more about each other and spend more time together in order to make that happen, and with Lily James as Cinderella then one can see why.
Goddamn does Lily James perfectly capture everything kind and generous and heartfelt about the character we’ve come to expect. This is one of those “grand slam” casting choices that beautifully marries an actor to the role in a specific way. James has that everyday type of look to her that fits in perfectly to who this woman is and who she grows up to be. She wears her compassion as a badge of honor throughout the movie and as low as she gets she is never driven low enough to lose all hope. It’s that beautifully balanced type of kindness that she showcases with every look, every mannerism and every adorably perfect smile. She is, and forever will be, Cinderella.
You can’t talk about the cast without mentioning Richard Madden who adds his own depth to a mostly forgettable character and breathes new life into this retelling. He’s your charming Prince without being a one-note, shallow version of that stereotype. He’s a kind man first and foremost with the rest falling in line behind him. In a wonderful case of against-type casting the producers switched Helena Bonham Carter and Cate Blanchett from the roles you’d expect them to play and turned that on its head. The usual ethereal and angelic Blanchett is placed as the Stepmother and she brings a cutting edge and coldness without losing any of that trademark depth which makes her one of the best actresses alive. Helena, in a nice break from her typically gothic and oddball performances, shines as the Fairy Godmother in a smaller portion of the movie but an immovable one. The rest of the supporting cast fills in the ranks quite nicely and seemed to all understand the type of direction Branagh was going for. That fairytale magic is in the air with everyone and they’re all acting appropriately.
Speaking of Branagh he wields his camera like a goddamn Wizard here with swooping camera shots and a focus on art direction and set-design that rivals few others. We’re treated to absolutely stunning costume design, beautifully hand-crafted sets and props that give this movie an entirely new meaning. Gone are the overbearing CGI and green sceen usage of previous fairy tale remakes and in their stead are some of the most undeniably detailed set pieces on screen. The lush wildlife of location shooting, the overflowing gardens, the castle steps, the charming house… they’re all here, and they’re all so alive.
Cinderella is a triumph in the most beautifully simple and welcoming of ways. It’s destined to be a live-action fairytale classic on repeat viewings as the calendar years pile on and you can very easily see why. It’s a story that goes out of its way to remind you of the good left in the world, that you should have courage and be kind, that you should show compassion without sacrificing your own self-being and that real, true courage comes from being yourself and letting the whole world see it. This is a lovely little slice of movie-making that’s perfect for a sub-genre that needed it in the most dire of ways. Now maybe, just maybe, future live-action installments will have even a smidgen of the heart this one has.