Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella may have featured porcelain stars swathed in Swarovski crystals and blooms of silk, but when it comes to this fairy tale’s retelling, I’ll stick with my high school standard, Ever After. Set in 16th century France, it’s a feisty update that has little patience for poor girls whimpering besides the hearth or strapping princes galloping in at whim on white horses.
The heroine of this incarnation, Danielle de Barbarac (Drew Barrymore), grabs ahold of her story from the start and never lets go. We all know that things quickly go downhill after she gains a stepmother, Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent (Anjelica Huston), and a pair of stepsisters, one snooty (Megan Dodds) and one secretly sweet (Melanie Lynskey), but things really go to the dogs when her beloved father dies and she is relegated to the kitchen.
Danielle’s life begins a slow turn for the better, not because of dumb luck or some daft prince with poor face perception, but because the girl does not have time to wait for help. When one of the servants is sold to pay off a debt, she gets her shit together, pretends to be a lady of the court, and refuses to back down until she secures his release. She then proceeds to school Prince Henry (Dougray Scott) on Thomas More’s Utopia, indentured servitude, and social justice. Why? Because she’s as mad as hell, and she’s not going to take this anymore.
Danielle is a Cinderella all girls can aspire to be and one all guys can hope to love. She is more than a collection of feminist buzz words, intelligent and independent to be sure but also not immune to second-guessing herself. Fear, however, doesn’t stop her from doing what is right or from standing up to people who need to be taken down a few pegs. And when it comes to love, she chooses her prince, not the other way around. Agency is a wonderful thing, it turns out, and Danielle is the prime mover in her story. She earns the audience’s affection not out of pity but of justice.
The men in her life get a little credit too. Henry knows an independent woman when he sees one and is content to be literally carried away by a girl, so to speak, in front of a band of mocking gypsies. His attraction to Danielle isn’t some just some rebellious indulgence though. He is truly changed by her reason and passion, and this transforms not just his heart but his kingdom as well, pushing him to introduce progressive reforms in labor and education. Another gendered twist has Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey), on a visit to the French court, playing fairy godmother. While he helps Danielle out of a few tight spots, he’s no wish-granting factory and is more enabler to an intelligent woman than a magician.
The script is well harmonized for liberal views on gender equality, but the actors really bring the piece together. Though Barrymore’s accent sounds like something cobbled from the bottom of Danielle’s shoe, her acting brings out something delightful and dewy. In Barrymore’s hands, Danielle is a dreamer but never naïve or foolish. The other anchor of this movie is the wonderfully wicked Anjelica Huston, who delivers barbed one-liners with a sniper’s precision. She chooses the coldest, cruelest incarnation of the evil stepmother, cutting in her malice and with the ability to ice a heart with one steel glance. But it’s this ruthlessness that drives Danielle to get the hell out, and that ends up being a damn good story.
Prod: Mireille Soria, Tracey Trench
Dir: Andy Tennant
Writer: Susannah Grant, Andy Tennant, Rick Parks
Cast: Drew Barrymore, Anjelica Huston, Dougray Scott, Megan Dodds, Melanie Lynskey, Patrick Godfrey, Timothy West, Judy Parfitt, Richard O’Brien, Lee Ingleby, Toby Jones, Jeroen Krabbé, Jeanne Moreau
Time: 121 min
Country: United States