Kenneth Branagh made a name for himself by bringing Shakespeare to the masses – and now the actor-turned-director is introducing a whole new generation to the classic Cinderella story.
It’s an age-old fairytale that’s been on the big screen many times before (notably by Disney in 1950), but 54-year-old Branagh wasn’t at all concerned that modern viewers would be bored by his remake.
“This issue of believing or worrying that there is one definitive version of things doesn’t really exist in my world – otherwise, why would you ever do another production of a play of Shakespeare? Some people would say ‘Don’t’, but I would say it’s always possible for these things to be refreshed because the time itself allows people to see them with different eyes,” Branagh tells RadioTimes.com.
He was keen to ensure his Cinderella – played by Downton Abbey’s Lily James – was strong and empowered: a young woman who could “certainly” stand alongside young adult role models. He believes the rags-to-riches heroine is as much of a positive and strong female character as The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen – just a different one.
“There isn’t a necessity to pick up a bow and arrow or an axe – or to compete directly in a specific world,” says Branagh. Cinderella’s “strength is different. It’s differently expressed.”
“As opposed to being in a story where there are uprisings or rebellions, there’s a chance for a thoughtfulness. The film is thoughtful. Cinderella’s character is thoughtful. As someone once said, ‘Please don’t confuse my kindness for weakness.’ Kindness is a kind of super-strength.”
Much of Branagh’s message is subtle, he says, and delivered in “a throw-away manner”: “Our presentations of empowerment are thrown away, in a conscious way. We don’t make anything of the fact that she’s riding bareback and [Prince Kit]’s in a saddle. She gets first dibs on horsemanship.”
It was important to him for Ella (as she’s called in the film) to be a relatable role model – “The film allows her still to be a work-in-progress” – and also to avoid making any grand conclusions.
“We don’t say they live happily-ever-after at the end – we do say they are very good rulers – but again we are trying subtly in a throw-away manner not to construct a world in which if you don’t get this fixed knowledge of who you are, and this fixed happiness, that you can’t have this other perfect thing.”
“The film is in itself an example that life is indeed imperfect and nevertheless perfect moments can be had during it,” he says.
All in all, Branagh was keen to stick to the positive essence of the story, and not to “create a hopeless world… I believe the opposite is possible, and actually frankly unusual. I felt that it was important. I had heard too many people come to a story saying, ‘I see it as very dark’.”
“The dark elements are there in the measure that I think they work for this story. Personally as a filmmaker right now, I’m not interested in creating dystopian worlds.”
Cinderella is in UK cinemas now
After Frozen, can a traditional fairytale like Cinderella charm a modern audience?
Lily James and Sophie McShera talk trading places in Downton Abbey and Disney’s Cinderella
Richard Madden: I based my Prince Charming on “ultimate gentlemen” Kenneth Branagh
Lily James was really sick during Cinderella ball scene: “I wasn’t really sure what was going on”
Kenneth Branagh: The mice DO talk – you just have to slow the sound down