I’m having a very stressful week at work, so I was up for some total escapism at the movies. The new Cinderella was exactly what the doctor ordered – a total fantasy where everything looks impossibly beautiful and good people live happily ever after. Though, it must be said, it was quite heavy on death too. Dead parents are, of course, a Disney staple, but this movie had not one, not two, but three parent deaths. Sheesh!
Unlike many live-action fairytales these days, Cinderella doesn’t seek to reinvent the story and instead goes for the old-fashioned, earnest, irony-free approach and a gentle pace of storytelling that’s refreshingly at odds with the manic mode of children’s movies these days. I thought it worked beautifully, when it’s done well and with obvious love this kind of approach can be magical and transporting. Where the movie does tweak the story is in giving its characters a bit more depth: Ella’s loving relationship with her parents (particularly her father) is expanded upon, as is Prince’s relationship with his father; and we’re given some understanding as to why Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother acts the way she does. Another change is that Ella and Prince get to meet before the ball, which makes their romance a tad more credible; it helps that the leads have lovely chemistry, too. Because the movie keeps so close to the original story, it also inherits the kind of stuff that comes off as silly onscreen – like, what’s the point of lining up the women all over the country to try on the glass shoe when the Prince and others actually know what Cinderella looks like? But nevermind.
Growing up, Cinderella was never one of my favourite fairytales, probably because, as a heroine, Cinderella was so completely passive and never *did* anything. Ever After with Drew Barrymore reimagined Cinderella as a spunkier, more active character; some might argue that, compared to recent Disney female leads like Elsa and Anna this new Cinderella is a throwback. I think that a younger version of me, who was rather scornful about most traditionally feminine things, would have gone pffffft at this Cinderella. Watching this movie now though, to me she never felt like a doormat; she comes off as a genuinely good, pure, gentle soul with a gift for endurance who is determined to stick by her values of kindness (even towards those who wrong her) and love for her parents’ house. Is this the kind of message that can turn problematic in real life, where the desire to be kind and considerate towards others at all times can sometimes hold you back? Maybe so, but I still can’t hate on it. Besides, I think that Ripley, Sarah Connor, Buffy etc. are all great, but I want to see a whole variety of lead female characters, with different kinds of strength. Not all of them have to kick ass or be sassy – in her own gentle way, Ella does influence the people around her.
Cinderella would never have worked without spot-on casting, and I thought that Lily James was absolutely wonderful – she gave a heartfelt, committed performance that never felt cloying. There’s something very grounded and earthy about her Ella – she’s of course a gorgeous girl but not in a doll-like way. Maybe it’s her thick, dark eyebrows. Richard Madden as the Prince was charming and handsome; it’s a bit amusing that, just like in Game of Thrones, he was again playing a young noble who chooses to marry for love rather than political advantage. I’m sure that a Cinderella/Red Wedding mash-up is in the works somewhere out in the internet wilderness.
Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine was divine and got to wear some of the film’s most fabulous costumes, kinda like a 40s screen siren on acid. As mentioned before, the film never justifies her actions but we do get to see her vulnerable side and understand what made her into a cynical, bitter woman she is. Her stupid, vulgar daughters are by comparison fairly flat and are mostly played for comic relief. Helena Bonham Carter makes a memorable eccentric fairy godmother who has never worked with squashes before but is game to try; her narration during the movie is a nice, warm touch.
As wonderful as the actors are, the costume and set design are almost the real stars of the movie – maaaan was this movie glorious to look at. They really went all out with Cinderella’s coach – it was like the most baroque, opulent golden construction you could think of. And I can’t even imagine how much work went into Cinderella’s ball dress. Compared to some of the other gaudier dresses it’s actually quite simple, but the volume, the layering, the detailing, the sparkle was just amazing. I’d really love to see all those costumes in an exhibition one day.