Sixty-five years after Walt Disney’s animated version of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale became an instant classic, director Kenneth Branagh returns to the potent myth of unjust oppression to create an equally timeless live-action adaptation of the family-friendly fable for the Mouse House. Giving a confident lightness of touch to the most famous rags-to-riches story of them all, Branagh sprinkles shimmering glitterdust over an emotionally underpinned script from Chris Weitz (About a Boy, The Golden Compass) to create a richly stylised diversion filled with elaborate settings and enchanting characters, and drenched in the most ravishing costume design and opulent art direction.
Despite being retold countless times, this appealing take on the tale follows the usual route only up to a point. After her beloved mother (Hayley Atwell) dies, Ella (Lily James) grits her teeth when her devastated merchant father (Ben Chaplin) remarries the snobbish Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). After Ella’s father passes away tragically, too, she finds herself relegated to the role of servant girl by her uncaring stepmother and spoilt, jealous daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera).
Writer Weitz then veers away from the traditional story here: Ella and her Prince Charming (Richard Madden) meet-cute during a stag hunt in the woods where she believes he’s an apprentice named Kit. It’s because he wants to meet this mysterious stranger again that he opens up his looming wife-finding ball to everyone in the kingdom. Other tweaks: Ella’s stepmother learns the ball is a sham ¬- she’s overheard the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) say Kit has an arranged marriage to a Spanish princess – and she also finds the other glass slipper hidden in Ella’s attic, using it to try and secure a deal for her future. It still ends ‘Happily Ever After’ of course.
It’s the striking level of reality and psychological truth in the performances that elevates this reboot from others in the recent fairy-tale remake pack. Lily James (Lady Rose in Downtown Abbey) breathes a touching credible sweetness into her reading of Cinderella as a cultured, intellectually stimulated go-getter determined to live by her mother’s deathbed mantra “Have courage and be kind”. From that grounding, her strength of character becomes a form of believable and well-expressed non-violent resistance towards her stepfamily. Nor is her romance with Kit based on passive subservience, more on equality and shared convictions. The moment she passes the ailing King (Derek Jacobi) on her midnight flight from the palace and tells the monarch how much his son loves him is one of the many well-earned tear-jerker flashpoints.
As for Cate Blanchett – more vindictive than evil due to the cards fate has dealt her – she’s overbearing imperiousness personified in the classic Bette Davis mode. Not one person will like her cruel character, but everyone will empathise with actress Blanchett’s visible desperation as she climactically crumbles, superbly coiffeured, on the staircase. It’s as stunning a turn as Glenn Close’s Cruella De Vil in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, albeit in a far less comedic vein. Elsewhere Helena Bonham Carter makes the most of her brief Fairy Godmother scenes, introduced by an almost Alien-like unfurling behind Ella in a dark garden. It’s Bonham Carter who gets to provide one of the many affectionate links to the 1950 cartoon when she utters the immortal incantation “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” before the Pumpkin Coach spell. Another is Ella briefly singing “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” before its reprise over the end credits.
It’s the effective contrast between beguiling fantasy and radiant sincerity, beautifully maintained by Branagh, that makes this fairy-tale resonate for a new generation. That and the absolutely amazing costumes by the incomparable Sandy Powell (The Young Victoria) and stupendous production design from the matchless Dante Ferretti (Hugo) who both should be adding to their Oscar collections next year if there is any justice. Powell’s stunning azure blue ballgown for Cinderella turns her Princess transformation into a moment of sheer wish-fulfilment elation that’s impossible not to thrill to – let it go, Frozen, your time in the spotlight is definitely up! Ferretti’s sweeping ballroom setting for the dance fantasia is a sumptuous chocolate-box delight and making Kit’s kingdom coastal, providing a wide spectrum of exciting backdrops, is a masterstroke.
Many won’t see the point of Rob Brydon’s slapsticky cameo as an artist painting a portrait of Kit on a horse, but that’s really the only downside to this vivid spectacle where even Cinderella’s mouse friends, not to mention Lucifer the cat, will hit those still nostalgic for the 50s cartoon. Uplifting and full of that hard-to-capture sparkling sense of wonder, this is an enthralling addition to the trustworthy Disney brand of memorable, magical fairy tales.