Much like its heroine, Cinderella is astonishingly earnest. In an age when so many big-budget films -- and especially these live-action fairy-tale adaptations -- spend 90-plus minutes winking and strafing at the fourth wall, that earnestness can be a bit unsettling. It can even be painful at moments. But that is mostly because it is hard to get used to. Before long, it begins to feel right, like someone finally remembered to keep the fairy tale at the core of a live-action adaptation.
That someone is director Kenneth Branagh. He seems to have a habit of choosing projects that seem beneath his talents as a director -- hello, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Thor -- and yet he seems to turn in work that has a quiet, surprising quality to it. You can add Cinderella to the list.
Lily James stars as the titular character. She is born Ella to two adoring parents on a lush, sun-drenched provincial estate. She becomes Cinderella after both parents meet untimely deaths and her wicked stepmother, played by Cate Blanchett, and stepsisters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) turn her in to their servant. This will feel familiar to the masses as it is Cinderella's exact situation at the beginning of the 1950 Disney animated feature, and Branagh is painstakingly faithful to that piece of the Disney canon.
But his version is more than a half-hour longer, and he doesn't waste the extra run time, spending almost all of it on filling in the backstory of the two characters destined to fall in love in the end.
In the case of Cinderella, this means establishing the connection to her parents and to the estate. The words of her mother as she is dying — “Have courage and be kind” — echo throughout the film and help to explain why she would subject herself to such abuse from her step-family when she isn’t really bound to them in any legal manner. It is a mantra that, along with the estate itself, gives her a tangible connection to her dead parents as deep, paralyzing grief courses right through to her core. James does wonders with this material, her slight overbite and expressive eyes selling the mental trap Cinderella finds herself in, and her pluckiness to make the best of it while she is stuck.
As for the Prince, the confusingly-for-Game-of-Thrones-fans named Kit (Richard Madden), we get a little bit of depth on what might be the most shallow and thinly drawn character in the history of Walt Disney Studios. We learn that he wants to marry for love not “advantage,” to the consternation of his dying father (Derek Jacobi) and the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard). This stuff isn’t as compelling as, well, everything with Cinderella and her nemesis, the enchantingly wicked Blanchett. In fact, it’s awfully cliche. But that seems like a problem with the Disney construct rather than Branagh or his leading man, Madden. What’s the alternative anyway? Keep Prince Charming the way he was back in 1950 — a shallow dullard who nonetheless rides in and solves all of Cinderella’s problems for her? At least in this case, they seem to be helping each other out by falling in love, rather than strolling down a sexist one-way street.
You know how the story ends, so it seems more important than ever to fixate on how it is told, and Branagh proves himself more than capable of telling it well. He weaves in the Disney requirements — the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), Gus Gus and the rest of Cinderella’s mouse companions, two dazzling Swarovski glass slippers — without making them feel too forced. More impressively, he enriches the familiar fairy tale with a backstory that makes you empathize with Cinderella even more and matches suitably magical visuals with tension-building, pitch-perfect performances from James and Blanchett. He even manages to embroil a memorable moral in to your brain.
“Have courage and be kind.”
The moral of the story is the heart of a fairy tale. Finally, it seems we have a live-action film version that made a point of having a heart. In so doing, Branagh has made a family movie with serious shelf life. That will make Disney happy. And it will probably make your kids, whether they’ve been born yet or not, happy too.