March 30th, 2015

Cinderella (2015)

On Friday, March 27, we went to see Disney’s new live-action “Cinderella.” I had wondered what they would do with the story that they had not done in their famous animated version. The answer is: lots!

For one thing, I do believe that it is the most beautiful movie I have ever seen. Every shot is meticulously composed. The settings (largely, but not all, CGI) are amazing, the costumes gorgeous, and the actors all good to look at in their own ways.

The story has been expanded in satisfying ways beyond Perrault. We get to see young Ella’s happy life before the death of her mother, her father’s hope in his new marriage, and the devastation wrought not only upon Ella, but also upon her stepmother, when the news comes that her father has died in a distant land.

Director Kenneth Branagh has brought out some remarkable performances. In the scene where she is on her deathbed, Hayley Atwell as Ella’s mother does much more than the clichéd “sick” performance, instead portraying profound sorrow at having to leave her daughter and husband. Lily James, as Cinderella (known as the light-hearted Lady Rose MacClare in “Downton Abbey”), arriving at the ball, radiates innocent joy at being there. When the wise King (Derek Jacobi) lies dying (it is a hard movie on parents) his son (Richard Madden) cries unashamedly, and the King in turn weeps for the Prince’s grief. Cate Blanchett proves that she can channel the late Joan Crawford, with her glittering eye, cruel laughter, and ruthless determination, aided by the character’s blood-red lipstick and corsetry that somehow manages to suggest a 1950’s era ‘bullet’ bra. Her Dior-inspired costumes also hark back to the great days of Crawford and Bette Davis, which really does work in the context. We also get a bit of back story on Stepmother, so we see that she isn’t entirely spiteful just for the sake of spite.

There are many other marvelous moments. The sequence in which the madly careering pumpkin coach and crew, overtaken by the strokes of midnight, reverts to its component parts, is worth the price of admission alone. The CGI mice, although they don’t talk, sing, or wear clothes, are utterly charming.

The story also grafts in some useful fairy tale tropes. The Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) tests Ella before agreeing to aid her, by appearing as a strange old woman and begging for some milk, in order to see if Ella has kept her mother’s precept to “have courage, and be kind.”

Georgie and I have both long maintained that Cinderella is not, unlike Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, a character that needs to be ‘rescued.’ Instead, the beauty of the Cinderella story is in being recognized, in being seen for who you truly are, and being valued therefore. In this version, Cinderella, does have to be rescued, having been locked in the attic by Stepmother, in order to add a little dramatic tension, but the recognition scene that follows does much to restore the original emphasis.
Beautiful, touching, uplifting—it is my opinion that “Cinderella” is nothing short of a masterpiece.

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Milwaukee Ballet, “Giselle”

On Sunday, March 29th, we went to see the Milwaukee Ballet’s performance of Michael Pink’s “Giselle.” Liberally adapted from the original 1841 libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier, Pink reimagines the story starting in the ghetto of an unnamed Polish town. Although the civilians aren’t specifically designated as “Jews” or the Fascistic soldiers “Nazis”, it’s pretty clear from the black uniforms and German/Polish signage what’s implied.

As the music starts, we see one of the townspeople, Hilarion (Timothy O’Donnell), clamber over the fence into the ghetto, eluding the searchlights and guards. As day breaks, he leaves vegetables he has scrounged and a bunch of flowers on the doorstep of the house where Giselle (Annia Hildalgo) lives, knocks, and then hides. Giselle is delighted by the flowers, but her mother (Rachel Malehorn) is more happy with the leeks and parsnips.

Enter Albrecht, a young officer of the occupiers. He is engaged to Bathilde (Janel Meindersee), the sister of his commander (Patrick Howell), but is intrigued by Giselle. Furtively, he doffs and hides his cap, belt and coat, revealing civilian clothes underneath. He then commences a flirtation with Giselle, and presses the gift of a necklace on her. Hilarion objects to this, and the two fight, but are separated by the townspeople, who strike up music and dancing to divert any attention by the guards. Giselle dances, but her mother, afraid due to Giselle’s weak heart, pulls her aside.

Albrecht ducks out as the guards do enter. Bathilde has arrived, and her brother is giving her a tour. Among other things, the people attempt to entertain her. When it is mentioned that Giselle loves to dance, Bathilde demands that she do so, and Giselle dances until she is exhausted.

When Bathilde leaves, Albrecht slinks back, only to be exposed when children find his bag and uniform. Giselle flies into a passion and dies. Bathilde, drawn back by the commotion, flings her engagement ring to the ground beside the prostrate Albrecht. As the curtain falls, her brother gives the order to round up the witnesses to his sister’s disgrace.

During the second act overture, we see the townspeople being “processed”, and then machine-gunned (tastefully done with light and sound effect--). As the ballet music proper starts, the dead rise and start adjusting to their new life as spirits. (Georgie had seen this ballet performed with the classical choreography, and said that Pink had adapted it wonderfully for this scene, preserving the steps but making it more ghostly). Giselle, now transfigured into an angelic being of light, comes among them and gladdens them.

Albrecht, wracked with shame and guilt, enters, seeking Giselle’s grave. She appears to him, expressing forgiveness. He pursues his vision of her, but encounters the ghostly townspeople, now bent on vengeance. They hound him to exhaustion and near death, with only Giselle’s intervention saving his life. As dawn breaks, the spirits depart, leaving Albrecht alone to face the day.

All the dancing for this piece was beautiful and powerful, with few noticable flaws. One objection that Georgie had was that the original first-act choreography was too broken up by the story insertions: she would have liked to see more sustained dancing. However, this was significantly mitigated by the power of the storyline and the wonderful character that Pink always puts into these scenes, and by the fact that the second act is pure dance, with much of the classical choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. The Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, directed by Andrews Sill, did a fine job with Adolphe Adam’s score for our performance.

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