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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