After Frozen, can a traditional fairytale like Cinderella charm a modern audience?

Ben Dowell is enchanted by Kenneth Branagh’s re-imagining of the much-loved fairy tale, which manages to succeed in a world of sisterly solidarity

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So in a world where popular children’s fairy tales now mean that the heroine doesn’t marry the Prince and live happily ever after, how on earth was Kenneth Branagh going to get away with making Cinderella?

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This is the fairy tale’s fairy tale, the one with wicked spinsters, an even wickeder mum and a heroine who gets her Prince thanks to her stoicism and her beauty. But, let’s face it, mainly her beauty.

In a world of Disney’s smash-hit spectacular Frozen, where true love’s kiss is actually the one exchanged by two sisters, how could we ever go back to archetype? Shouldn’t Branagh have just let it go and done something else?

No. Because what he does is, in fact, a triumph. 

He recreates a magical, beautiful world but one with just enough grit and grounded reality to make it fresh and pertinent to modern audiences.

We see a lot of young Ella (as she is first called) enjoying an idyllic life with her parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) before the tragic death of her mother and the decision by her father years later to marry again – by this time Ella has grown into Lily James of Downton Abbey fame.

Cate Blanchett’s step-mother is wicked enough but great effort is made to actually understand the interloper. As the script makes clear, her first husband died and left her alone and vulnerable with two daughters even she knows (and says) are pretty stupid and horrible.

And what of her new husband? What’s this adoration towards his far sweeter, smarter and infinitely more beautiful daughter all about? How’s she supposed to feel? And when he does finally expire (on a business trip – he’s hardly ever at home), the messenger bearing the news tells how at his end he spoke only of his daughter… well, what’s a wicked step-mother to do? She’s a rum sort, of course, but it’s made clear that her wickedness is not entirely arbitrary – and Blanchett delivers an excellent study in proud, hurt, wily cunning.

Ella’s transition to Cinderella (prompted by a throwaway joke by the two sisters) is much more gradual, but hard and real enough and James manages to avoid being simpering as she holds on to her dying mother’s advice to “have courage, be kind”.

But as she wins the heart of the Prince (who she first loved without knowing of his royalty) in a truly stunning ballroom scene, there is enough humanity and plausibility at the heart of this story to make it live on and stay fresh for contemporary audiences. You get the feeling that he is going to be a pretty enlightened monarch, too.

This truly is a modern Cinderella.

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Cinderella is on general release in cinemas