Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Premise: A retelling of the fairytale. A young woman is treated as a servant by her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. At the same time the local prince plans a ball where he will select a wife.
What Works: The 2015 version of Cinderella is a very good example of updating old material for a new audience while maintaining what made the story popular in the first place. The film comes from Kenneth Branagh who has frequently had success adapting classic stories for the screen such as Shakespeare’s Henry V and Hamlet as well as the underrated 1994 version of Frankenstein. This new version of Cinderella has a great look. The art direction and costumes are well designed and this fairytale world is credible. The film also benefits from good casting. Lily James plays the title role and she does the part well. The role of Cinderella is a difficult one in that she is a nearly flawless character; it is easy for someone who externally attractive and inwardly virtuous to become obnoxious but Cinderella suffers enough at the hands of her stepfamily to be empathetic and James imbues her character with enough reality to make her accessible. Cate Blanchett is cast as the wicked stepmother and she is also quite good. Although she is cruel, the film offers a motive to her harshness. In this movie the stepmother has also suffered, having lost two husbands, and that has made her vindictive. This allows for the conflict between her and Cinderella to take on a little more complexity than other versions of the story. In the past decade there has been a trend of revisiting familiar fairytales and either riffing on them ironically as seen in the Shrek series or forcing a dark and violent tone on them as in Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent. This new version of Cinderella is unique because of its earnestness. The filmmakers don’t add an epic battle scene nor do they make fun of this story as they tell it. Instead they tweak the Cinderella formula just slightly to make it more accessible to the contemporary audience. Virtually every version of the Cinderella story has a feminist problem; it’s a tale about a woman needing to get married in order to escape her lot in life. In traditional tellings of this story, Cinderella fundamentally sees the prince in the same way as her stepsisters: as a meal ticket to a comfortable life. In the 2015 version, Cinderella and the prince want to be together because they recognize the goodness in each other. That puts courage and good heartedness at the center of the film and so this iteration of the story is still recognizable as Cinderella while enjoying a contemporary angle.
What Doesn’t: There is nothing about Cinderella that is terribly surprising. This story has been told many times before and aside from the feminist adjustment to Cinderella’s motives what the film offers is a standard retelling of an entrenched narrative. In a way that is part of the appeal of this movie; the earnestness of the film and its title character are refreshing in a frequently cynical movie marketplace. But viewers can’t be blamed for feeling as though they’ve seen this all before. One aspect of Cinderella that doesn’t quite play as well as it should is the magical aspect of the story. This is a problem for most renditions of Cinderella. Without any foreshadowing, the fairy godmother shows up, works her magic, and then falls out of the story again. No one else in the story uses magic and it isn’t established ahead of time so it comes across as a non sequitur. This is an inherent weakness of virtually every iteration of Cinderella. It’s no worse here that most versions of the story and the fairy godmother is played well by Helena Bonham Carter but the filmmakers don’t do anything to fix the problem either.
Bottom Line: The new version of Cinderella updates the story in some subtle and satisfying ways while still being recognizable as the core fairy tale. It will probably play best for younger audiences who aren’t as familiar with this story but the movie is a solid reiteration of the classic fairytale.
Episode: #535 (March 29, 2015)