If you’re going to compare Disney’s live action update of its 1950 animated classic Cinderella to anything, it would be the billowing silk cloud of a dress worn by the title character. Designed by Oscar winner Sandy Powell, the gown is an iridescent dream that shimmers and floats with every graceful turn by actress Lily James. It’s pure fairy tale, gliding in and out with nary a whisper. It’s also pure superfluousness, an impractical and unnecessary extravagance that no one really needs.
But that, some would argue, is the whole point of film and make-believe. I don’t need Star Wars, but I’ll be there when the Force awakens. So in an already crowded party with too many Cinderella retellings to count, might as well add another. Anyway, director Kenneth Branagh’s movie is often sumptuous to behold, nestled securely in a lush, green stretch of land far, far away. You’d think some of the frames were borrowed from a gilded picture book. It’s an adaptation not meant for a 13″ laptop monitor, I learned. Apart from the visuals though, this iteration doesn’t dramatically improve on the well-told tale, making it a grandiloquent but somewhat meaningless affair.
Cinderella enchants with some magical fairy dust moments; wide-eyed kids will still be transfixed by the transformation sequence, and Cinderella’s fashionably late entrance to the ball plays on our best adolescent fantasies. But the film rarely sweeps you away with burning, almost aching, love. James and her princely costar Richard Madden are well matched, equal parts sweet and charming, but nice just isn’t compelling enough (nor, it seems, is a PG rating). The two are so pleasant, so inoffensive that when they are together, you sort of hope they tiptoe away and leave the messiness of plot and conflict to others, maybe someone who wouldn’t mind throwing a punch or slinging some mud.
That, of course, would be a job for Cate Blanchett, who is the closest to a standout in this movie. She continues a strong tradition of despicable, simply wicked stepmothers and is helped by a wardrobe, makeup, and lighting that elicits noir-ish Joan Crawford. As masterfully as she cuts Cinderella with her icy stare, however, she doesn’t tease with any touch of tenderness. There is a brief but brilliant moment in 1998’s Ever After where Anjelica Huston, in the same role, hints at her love for and loss of Cinderella’s father, suggesting a seed of a compassion that is crushed and then blooms into something horrible and maligned. That is the character at its most interesting, when she walks the line between love and jealousy. Lady Tremaine, as she is called here, buries her hurt so deeply that she doesn’t even privilege the audience a peek.
That doesn’t matter if you want unadulterated fairy tale, which this is to the point of storybook voiceover. Elements like that are distracting if you’d rather the story tell itself, but that’s not how these things work. Fairy tales hold your hand and guide you with a melodious refrain – “Have courage and be kind.” They shouldn’t be too rousing, nothing that will make you jump out of bed and beg for more. But if they gently carry you off into a light dream, then it’s done its job right.
“A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” by Lily James:
“Strong” by Sonna Rele:
Prod: Simon Kinberg, David Barron, Allison Shearmur
Dir: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Chris Weitz
Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McSheara, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgård, Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin
Time: 105 min
Country: United States