It seems laughably apologetic to give a studio credit for not royally screwing something up – hey now, that wasn’t completely awful! Well done, gents – but to be fair, there are a number of ways that the live action “Cinderella” could have gone horribly wrong. It could have been directed by one of those ‘that guy’ directors, rather than Kenneth Branagh, who made sure the movie had style and class, by jove. The script, by Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”), could have painted with a broad brush, rendering the wicked Tremaine women cardboard cutouts, and the prince a brain-dead trophy husband. “Cinderella” does none of these things, but more importantly, the movie reinforces the idea that kindness is always the better option, even when it’s not the easiest one. This may still be a fairy tale, but that is a great message for young girls and boys, and even better, the story is crafted in such a way that makes Cinderella not so much a lottery winner as a young woman making smart choices, honoring her family, and taking responsibility for her fate, by being kind. I can’t stress that last part enough.
Ella (Lily James) lives a simple but happy life with her loving, modest parents. Following the death of her mother (Hayley Atwell), though, Ella’s life takes a dreadful turn when her father (Ben Chaplin) marries the widow Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), and must share the house with her and her awful daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera). The aspiring social climbers treat Ella like a servant when her father travels, and when Ella receives word that her father has fallen ill and died on his most recent trip, Ella – now dubbed Cinderella by the stepsisters when they see her with soot on her face (cinders on Ella, ha ha) – rides to the forest to escape her misery.
While in the forest, she happens upon a group of royalty hunting an elk, and she shames one of them, a handsome young man named Kit (Richard Madden), for doing so, unaware that Kit is a prince and heir to the throne. The two do that period’s version of the Meet Cute (circling each other on horses, apparently) and are clearly attracted to each other – both mind and body – but Ella doesn’t tell Kit her name or anything about her, out of fear that he will be disappointed once he discovers that she’s a commoner. On the contrary, Kit is so smitten with Ella that he refuses the king’s (Derek Jacobi) insistence that he marry “up” (read: a princess in a larger empire) in order to grow their kingdom. Kit decides to throw a royal ball and opens it to the public with the hope that Ella will attend. Ella plans to, but the Tremaine women see to it that she cannot. Good thing Ella has a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) to save the day, especially considering that up to that moment, she didn’t know she had one.
The casting of this movie was genius, at times in unconventional ways. Blanchett has played villains before (“Hanna,” for one), but more often than not it, is Carter playing the baddie, which is what makes her appearance here as the fairy godmother such a pleasant surprise. (It sure beats the hell out of her reprising her role as the Mad Queen in “Alice in Wonderland.”) Blanchett is more than capable of wringing every last drop of cruelty out of Lady Tremaine’s words – even if her daughters look like they were cast with Carter in mind as their mother – and she does just that. James, meanwhile, has a harder job here than it may seem; she has to play nice in the face of the boorish vanity of her stepfamily, and even when they’re at their most appalling, she keeps her cool. Ella is steadfast and hopeful, but shattered. James strikes the perfect balance between the two extremes.
And the dress she wears to the ball – wow. It’s ridiculously early, but I’m confident that this movie will win next year’s Academy Award for Best Costume Design for that dress alone. It is simply stunning.
The truly terrifying thing about Anastasia and Drisella is how relatable they are. There are millions of girls in the country right now who act just like them (delusional, fame-obsessed, overblown sense of self-importance, completely lacking in empathy), and indeed one wonders if Weitz wrote them that way to serve as a warning to young girls that they will run into Anastasia and Drisella several times in their lives, and that this is how to break them. Weitz also handled Ella’s relationship with the mice perfectly. They can’t talk – because that would be silly – but they can almost talk, and they clearly understand her. Some early exposition even explains how that’s possible.
The movie hangs around longer than it should – they introduce a sub-villain and a Sinister Plan just when the movie should be hitting the finish line – and there is a fair amount of death, which may upset some younger kids (like, say, my 7-year-old son). Still, for a movie with a bullseye on its back the size of Canada — it’s a live-action (1) remake (2) of a Disney princess movie (3), making it the Holy Trinity of ‘Hollywood is out of ideas’ projects, and therefore subject to terabytes of snark – “Cinderella” practices what it preaches by having courage, being kind, and exceeding all expectations.