★★★ / ★★★★
To have courage and to be kind: traits that young Ella promised to embody during her mother’s final moments. Years after giving her word, Ella’s father (Ben Chaplin) remarries a widow (Cate Blanchett) and she, as expected, moves into the house eventually, along with her two despicable daughters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger). To give one’s word is one thing but to keep it is another beast entirely. Ella (Lily James), a dreamer who speaks to and befriends animals that live in her home, must endure her awful stepmother and stepsisters while father is away.
Based on the screenplay by Chris Weitz and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Cinderella” is a loyal retelling of an animated film classic but it is one that can be enjoyed even by those who are very familiar with the story. The reason is because the material takes its time with the details, whether it be in terms of costume designs and how they complement each other or the finer details of its characters, even though they still remain archetypes, as to avoid one-dimensional stereotypes. I was surprised that there were moments when I felt humanity emanating from the cruel stepmother.
The casting proves to be a key ingredient. Blanchett, a consummate performer, manages to do a lot with few lines that might have been dismissed or downplayed in less experienced hands. Even though her character appears to have a black heart when we solely look at the stepmother’s actions, notice that Blanchett imbues pain or sadness in those eyes. The director has enough sense to allow the camera to linger a little bit during those small but rich moments. I admired that Blanchett did not play the character as a complete ice queen. It would have been easier, certainly, but less interesting.
James is Blanchett’s equal. She commands a different kind of beauty—soft, delicate, approachable. This role, too, could have been boring if played like a wooden plank. In this Cinderella, I sensed an intelligence and fire without relying on quirks. She knows she is being mistreated but that awareness is communicated not through yelling, complaining, or glares. Instead, it is told through the eyes, the pity she feels toward the women who have it all and yet have nothing. At least nothing of substance or value.
I believed the story’s universe because a significant effort put into how certain things should look without relying on CGI overload. For instance, the costumes are appropriately bright, kid-friendly, and have a lot of eye-catching patterns. Instead of the clothes looking like they are simply hanging onto the actors, the materials are allowed to move and breathe. We notice their textures, we wonder what they are made from, if certain bits are computerized and to what extent. Observe the scene when Cinderella and the prince (Richard Madden) are dancing. It commands so much energy not only because James and Madden appear to be having fun or that the camera seems to be dancing with them, but it is also because the blue dress is alive instead of a bright but static thing.
There is one casting choice that can be considered a miscalculation. Helena Bonham Carter plays the Fairy Godmother. Although the pivotal scene involving the transformation of a pumpkin, mice, and lizards is executed well, Carter, in my opinion, looks and acts too quirky to be a non-distracting fairy godmother. I think that in order to get around this, a lot of makeup was applied on her face. It made the actress look like she had botox or had undergone surgery that went awry. Looking at the character’s face closely made me feel very uncomfortable.
“Cinderella” is a lot of fun even though it does not break any new ground. There is chemistry between Cinderella and the prince, played wonderfully by James and Madden, and so we root for them to be together… despite the fact that we know they will. In Disney movies that involve some kind of romance, most of the time I find them to be syrupy and repetitive. Here, I actually wanted to see the lead characters to talk more, to touch each other more. There were times when I felt like I was watching just another story, not a Cinderella story—which is a compliment because it is a sign that the material has gone beyond what is expected.