Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 52 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another.
My first reaction to news of a new Disney Cinderella was “why another version?” Then when I checked IMDB I saw that it was 65 years ago that Disney’s classic animated version was released—yes, 1950! Where had all the time gone? Of course, in the meanwhile there also were three TV versions of the story, all with music by Rogers and Hammerstein—in 1957 starring Julie Andrews; in 1965 with Lesley Ann Warren; and in 1997 with an African American actress playing the lead. The tale also was released in 1976 under a different name, The Slipper and the Rose, but still a musical. And, of course, we’ve had two film versions of Annie, which is basically an updated and reworked version of Cinderella minus the magic. The story has also been at the heart of a number of modern-day movies.
Any doubts I had about remaking the familiar story were quickly dissipated within the first few minutes, even before the glowing Lily James (of Downton Abbey) appeared as the put-upon maiden. Director Kenneth Branagh and his erudite scriptwriter Chris Weitz are not out to render a fairytale with a 21st Century female empowerment message (girls can turn to the studio’s Frozen for this)—rather, they want to expand the tale a bit so as to add to its emotional impact, making it a love story for all, and not just a fairytale for kids. And that they do, this film being twenty or more minutes longer than the earlier versions (except for the 2+ hour-long The Slipper and the Rose).
They have made good use of those extra minutes, beginning with the opening when Ella’s young but terminally ill mother (Hayley Atwell) leaves the following advice to her ten-year-old daughter (Eloise Webb), “Have courage, be kind, and all will be well.” The heart-broken little girl takes this wisdom to heart, growing ever closer to her loving merchant father (Ben Chaplin). Even the mice that others would trap are included in her circle of love. (Although the mice do not talk, they are certainly cutesyfied!)
Father and daughter live at the center of this circle of love for many years, and then comes the day when he brings home a new wife and her two daughters, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), Drisella (Sophie McShera), and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). Dressed in the latest fashion designed to call attention to herself, Lady Tremaine has paid less attention to her daughters, garbed in gaudy matched gowns. She reveals the disdain that her icy smile covers up when she says to Ella, uncertain as to how to address her, “No need to call me ‘Stepmother’ — ‘Madame’ will do.”
Ella gives up her spacious bedroom so the sisters will have more room, neither of them, of course, offering a thank you. She moves into the dark, drab attic. After they receive news of Father’s death while he was on a business trip, Lady Tremaine dismisses the servants and orders Ella to do all the cooking and household chores. During this troubled period the mice are her only solace—and also apparently her solitary rides on a dappled horse through the fields and woods. (No explanation of how she is able to slip away from her three captors, or even that she was missed during her absences.) During the winter months, Ella leaves the attic to sleep in front of the warm fireplace. It is when the sisters see some of the soot and cinders smeared on her cheek that they dub her Cinderella.
It is on one of her rides that Ella sees a beautiful stag rush by and she hears the sound of hounds and a party of hunters. Suddenly she encounters a handsome young man amidst the trees. Both are taken with each other. She asks him to let the stag go free, and he agrees. Another rider comes up, and the young man shushes him, thus keeping secret his identity. He is, of course, the Prince—no name given, though as played by Richard Madden he is certainly charming. He asks for her name, but she holds back. The two part ways, but it is obvious that they both would welcome another encounter.
At the palace the King (Derek Jacobi) and one of his chief advisers the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) want the Prince to choose a bride. The old king has a weak heart, so he is anxious to see his only son marry while he is still alive. The Prince, taken with the nameless woman he had met, tries to stall, but finally gives in to their plan for a ball at which he will select a bride from the eligible noble maidens who will attend. The Prince expands the invitation to include every maiden, high or lowborn, in the kingdom. However, the Grand Duke secretly makes a deal with Princess Chelina of Zaragosa (Jana Perez) to pair her with the Prince at the ball so that she can charm him. Thus we have two villains in this version—later when the hunt for the owner of the glass slipper is on, the Grand Duke makes every effort to prevent Ella from trying it on. It is the Prince’s favorite royal aide, the Captain (interestingly played by black actor Nonso Anozie), who overturns the Grand Duke’s plan of overlooking Ella during the search.
But we have gotten ahead of the story. There is before the despairing moment when Lady Tremaine tears the dress Ella is planning to wear to the Royal Ball, riding off with her daughters on their fools’ quest for one of the two winning the heart of the Prince. Enter Ella’s Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), and soon pumpkin, mice, a goose, and two lizards are transformed into a gilded coach, four white stallions, a coachman, and two footmen suitable for a princess. The CGI-aided transformation is awesome, and also touched with a bit of humor, as the last parts of the mice to be changed into horses are their rounded ears. Ella’s entrance at the top of the stairs leading to the ballroom is a wonderful moment. We are as struck by her radiant beauty, clad in her gorgeous blue gown, as much as the Prince is. (Costume designer Sandy Powell is sure to win an Oscar nomination!) Their swirling dance together around the ballroom might arouse memories of similar ones in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, or Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.
Of course, Ella is working against time, and so when she notes that midnight is near, she turns and runs from the Prince, but pauses in front of the King just long enough to share what she has learned from her conversation with his son, “He really loves you.” I loved this addition, as well as that of the deathbed scene that quickly follows when the King, wanting his son to be happy, relents and gives him his blessing to search for the young woman who left the slipper behind. This tender scene is one more detail that brings out the humanity of the characters.
Many reviewers have praised Cate Blanchett for being such a marvelous villain, and so she is, but not to the extent that she makes the picture. Lily James really shines as the innocent orphan who, even before her Fairy Godmother’s magic, rises above her circumstances, never giving in to self-pity.
I was intrigued to read in Richard Corliss’s review in TIME that author Kurt Vonnegut in his unsuccessful 1947 Masters thesis drew several parallels between Jesus and Cinderella. Had he seen this version, I think he might have argued all the harder for the similarities. The legacy bequeathed by Ella’s mother, “Have courage, be kind, and all will be well” could have been said by Jesus or pinned at the end of one of his letters by the apostle Paul. It is referenced several times in the film, so that both children and parents will get it. And at the end of the film there is even the offer of forgiveness. Fortunately Chris Weitz resisted the temptation to end on a sugary note of shallow sentimentality—some people have what the Scriptures call “hardened hearts” that render reconciliation impossible.
As family films go, this will probably appeal more to girls than boys, though I hope the latter would not be left at home. There is something in this film for the entire family (even if for boys it’s mainly the mice and the magic transformations).
The review with a set of discussion questions will be in the April Visual Parables.