Teenage dreams
Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Cinderella’ reviewed

The live-action fairytale is inescapable these days, a state of affairs usually blamed on the success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, released in 2010, which became the 17th highest grossing film of all time. Brand awareness is key, and Hollywood seems intent on adapting every classic children’s book that’s ever been turned into an animated feature by Disney. Hence Pan, a new version of JM Barrie’s tale, starring Hugh Jackman, coming this year; Tarzan, starring Margot Robbie as Jane, coming next; and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, with Idris Elba as Shere Khan, also coming in 2016.

In 2017 we’ll see a new version of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, but first comes Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring another Downton alum, Lily James, as well as Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden. Deconstructions such as Enchanted and Into the Woods be damned – this is a Cinderella defiantly free of quotation marks.

As with studio comedies, the look of the contemporary live-action fairytale is pretty much uniform: brightly lit and goosed with CGI at every opportunity. There are always lots of crane shots – over forests, over samey-looking kingdoms, over gleamingly fake palaces to reveal gleamingly fake grounds below. Branagh’s Cinderella is no different, but it’s saved from being purely generic by its costumes (designed by the much-garlanded Sandy Powell) and by the actors who show them off.

The Berlin Film Festival, where Cinderella premiered, was dominated by Robert Pattinson, who featured in two films, and James Franco, in three. In proximity to those twin vacuums, Richard Madden as Prince Charming couldn’t help but seem very charming indeed, while Lily James’s Cinderella is hard to resist despite being determinedly winsome – radical in the age of The Hunger Games’ Katniss Evergreen, et al. Cate Blanchett misjudged her last turn as a fairytale villain, in 2011’s Hanna, where she seemed to be performing in a Blackpool panto, but as Cinderella’s wicked stepmother she gets the pitch just right. 

The only glimmer of winky knowingness in Chris Weitz’s script comes from a gag about the functionality of Cinderella’s glass slipper, though it’s a joke the character herself doesn’t seem in on. Otherwise Branagh’s version plays an entirely straight bat. Where recent films such as Brave and Tangled have been at pains to imbue their heroines with sass, this Cinderella is self-effacing, close to angelic, in the face of her subjection. As with so many of these blockbusters, the film plays into the dual fantasies of its teenage demographic: to be somehow special, toiling in obscurity but with predestined glory imminent – and to be parentless, pitied but independent.

The fairytale movie exists in a world unshackled from geographical or temporal specificity: advisers to the king are played by the Swedish actor Stellan Skaarsgard and by Nonso Anozie, an English actor of Nigerian descent. Its dislocation from the real is perhaps why Cinderella is able to peddle a tale of upwards mobility by way of sheer good character and not feel hopelessly counterfeit. Our young lovers lose their parents but find each other, and therein lies the appeal. The adolescents at whom the fairytale movie is targeted are the first whose prospects, we keep being told, are grimmer than those of their parents. By offing Mum and Dad, the fantasy blockbuster restores the balance. 

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.

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