Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Cinderella’

**EDIT: Oops, I messed up – it’s Helena Bonham Carter doing the voiceover, not Emma Thompson! But my comment still stands about her honeyed tones in Much Ado…**

Yesterday Daughter #1 and I went to see the new, live action version of Cinderella at the local cinema with some friends. It was a kids’ screening, which meant lots of small ones, but an absolutely bargain price of £2 each so well worth the money. Frankly, for two quid, any film would be worth the money, but this one was particularly good. I’m not good with children’s films generally, at least not the animated ones, so whenever we watch kids’ movies at home, we tend to go for either 1980s classics or ones with actual human beings in (although I have no issues with puppets – Labyrinth  is a firm favourite, and not just for David Bowie’s tights -er- performance).

So, what’s the Cinderella reboot like? Well, in a word….lovely. I don’t think it’s possible to give spoilers away, but I will just riff on a few of the moments that made me smile, and shed the odd tear or three.

First of all, in true Ken and Em  style, we get the gorgeously honey voiced Emma Thompson doing the narration. Her rendition of ‘Sigh no more’ at the start of Much Ado still gives me goosebumps, and so it was a lovely surprise to hear her voice at the start, and throughout the film. She doesn’t appear onscreen, but her presence is a powerful one.

The visuals are stunning. From Ella’s parents’ chocolate box cottage at the start to the iconic dance scene at the Prince’s ball, every shot is a keeper. The post-midnight carriage sequence is arresting for its focus on the action (there is a real fear, at one point, that Cinders will be trapped inside a rapidly shrinking pumpkin), and the CGI construction  of the Royal Palace is equally convincing.

In terms of character, Branagh has managed to stay true to the original Disney animation, while tweaking the representations for a twenty first century audience. Ella is beautiful and kind, to be sure, but she also has spirit and a mind of her own. Branagh gives us a heroine who is at once powerless in the face of her stepmother and stepsisters (the gorgeously wicked Cate Blanchett, Sophie McShera and Holiday Grainger) but also empowered by her kind heart to stand up to the Prince (a role which could so easily end up as a cardboard cut out, but in that, in Richard Madden’s hands assumes a more three dimensional quality), when she asks, no tells him to spare the life of a stag in the forest during their first meeting. The attraction between the protagonists is seen as one which develops over a little more time than simply a dance at the ball; they share an enchanted evening together before she is eventually snatched away from him.

Although at times I feared for Lily James’ lungs (the ballgown is beautiful but the corsetry must have hurt!), she is a heroine who I wouldn’t mind my daughters aspiring to, if they had to pick a Disney ‘princess’. The mantra of the film, first told to Ella by her dying mother and then repeated at points through the film is a good one; ‘have courage and be kind’. Ella is kind, but she has a backbone, and it’s not just about marrying the prince in the end; it’s about doing it on her terms. OK, so Branagh couldn’t do anything too radical with the outcome, but within the confines of the original tale, there is more of a sense of equality at the end, which is not only desirable, but essential in 2015. There was a part of me that was disappointed that the ugly sisters’ toes remained intact (and, if I may, oh, the shoes!!), but I think that might have been a bit much for the target audience.

And, of course, the romance writer in me loves a good love story. Prince Kit and Ella are a good match, and although their story is, inevitably, the overarching one, Branagh chooses to emphasise the mature love story, too. Ella’s father, played by the wonderful Ben  Chaplin, is played contrary to the Baron Hardup stereotype. This is a man who, many years after the loss of his beloved wife, yearns once more for love. His intentions towards Lady Tremaine, who becomes Ella’s ‘Wicked Stepmother’ are honourable and not about the money. Lady Tremaine herself has lost the love of her life, and their union, while on one level misguided, has, on some level it seems, the intention to end the loneliness for them both. The fact that both are incapable of moving on, of loving someone else, leeds irrevocably to the collapse of the marriage. There’s an emotionally charged scene early in the film when Ella and her father are discussing their situation during a party held by Lady Tremaine, and they both share their sadness, still, at their loss.  What is a touching moment between them takes on a new dimension when Lady Tremaine is shown to be eavesdropping on them. But she is not angry; in fact, even jealousy seems to take a back seat. The overwhelming feeling is one of her own grief, and her own inability to connect with her new husband and step daughter, as well as sadness that her new husband will also never bridge the gap between them. This, then, becomes the motivation for her cruelty in the rest of the film. Thus, when Ella’s father dies, Ella’s fate at the hands of her stepmother is sealed.

Finally, I reserve a mention for the always eccentrically wonderful Helena Bonham Carter as the eponymous Fairy Godmother. We first see her as a wrinkled, homeless old crone, before Ella’s kindness allows her to reveal herself as everyone’s favourite wish granter. The element of danger in her magic is a motif that runs throughout the whole enchanted coach/ballroom scene, and is emphasised initially by her pumpkin spell, which very nearly crushes her and Ella against the walls of the greenhouse. From this point on, she gives us a campy, glorious series of set pieces, while dressed in something redolent of Miss Havisham on her wedding day crossed with the fairy on top of the Christmas tree. She gives a Burtonesque performance, and provides much of the comedy in an emotionally charged tale.

And that’s what I would say, in conclusion about this film. It manages to take an ages-old premise, and inject it with the raw emotion that brings it to life. the potential would have been for it to be sickly sweet; in fact, it is just the opposite. I came away feeling happily tearful, and once again amazed at Kenneth Branagh’s mastery as a director. This is definitely one I’ll be pre-ordering on Blu Ray! Oh, and I didn’t even mention the mice…

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