You know this by now. An orphaned girl (James) is kept as a servant by her wicked stepmother (Blanchett) but shown a way out by a prince (Madden) and a fairy godmother (Bonham Carter).
This live-action take on Cinderella, which sticks closely to the Disney animation, is primarily for those who found Frozen a bit radical. It’s for those who like a fairy tale where men are men (riding horses, bearing swords, wearing britches so snug they may imperil their paternal prospects) and every woman is an aspiring princess. Progressive it’s not, but as a traditional tale it is well told and beautifully presented. Its lack of knowing nudges is almost radical.
In Kenneth Branagh Disney has found reliable hands, a director who can keep a story briskly trotting along and all the style in service to the content. He also has a sharp sense of humour and knows that if the setting is absurd, you don’t have to lean too hard on line delivery for the joke to land. Where similar films like Mirror Mirror and Maleficent have strained so hard for camp the effort killed them, Branagh recognises the story is camp by nature and doesn’t need further winking. Which isn’t to say for a second this is subtle.
There are a lot of ‘turns’ in Cinderella. You can see the bite marks in the scenery, but the largely British cast nibble rather than gnaw. Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera are despicable fun as the cruel stepsisters, looking like the Shining twins rolled through Barbara Cartland’s knicker drawer. Helena Bonham Carter does her energetic Tim Burton pantomiming but with sparkling lightness instead of swivel-eyed darkness. Hayley Atwell has a good old faint before popping off as Cinderella’s much-missed mother. They’re at the tipping point of going over the top, and the film is better for it.
The main event, obviously, is Blanchett’s devious stepmother. She isn’t just given a big entrance, she’s given a big entrance for every scene (there’s one shot where she simply opens a door, but contorts herself into an arch that should require pulleys). Branagh has apparently riffled through every female star of the golden age and grafted the best to Blanchett. She’s Rita Hayworth yucking it up with the boys. She’s Marlene Dietrich glaring out of the shadows. She’s Vivien Leigh smouldering from under outsized hats. She is also one of the characters for whom Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have tried to find some depth. We get a monologue about why she’s become so calloused and see her face harden at every mention of Ella’s mother. That, thankfully, doesn’t mean we’re meant to sympathise with her. She’s still dreadful, but dreadful with purpose.
All this noise and gesticulation makes it tough for Lily James and Richard Madden, as Ella and the Prince, to create an impression. Theirs are the least dazzling roles — Cinderella’s arc is largely a makeover bookended by washing up — but they are endearing in their eternal optimism rather than tooth-rottingly sweet. The one nod to modernity is in making the mantra of “have courage and be kind” applicable to both leads. Most Disney fairy tales would not have a scene of the prince curled up, crying next to his dying father — a touching, smart surprise.
This is the Disney princess model of old with some new technology, but that’s a formula which built a studio. If the gender politics don’t make you grind your teeth then the light humour and sparkling visuals should keep you happy, if not ever after, at least for 90 minutes.
A retrograde fantasy with the depth of a dressing-up box, but its spirited, genuinely funny and played to the hilt by an excellent cast.