In the last ten years, the Disney Corporation has broken the heads off more than a few statues they carved back in the 50s and 60s. Given that the company made their billions entertaining children, and given that Americans in no wise view children as they did when your grandparents were kids, such image smashing makes good fiscal sense. Ours is a tirelessly political world, which is unfortunate especially for fairy tales, which often trade in the childishness of children, the girlishness of girls and boyishness of boys, all of which have lately been absorbed into a seemingly endless, definitely hellish preoccupation with gender and being offended about it.
But if you are tired of hearing about gender… If you are sick of progressive interpolations into sacred myths… If you are bored with narrative and social iconoclasm… then have I got a movie for you. Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is the least ambitious, least political, least Enlightened, least postmodern film of the last ten years. Branagh’s only daring is in his lack of cultural awareness. We might as well good-naturedly accuse him of crawling out of a Nixon-era bomb shelter to make this one. Good is good, evil is evil, pumpkins are carriages— everything is as it should be.
The story is just as you remember it, though Branagh stuffs it with sumptuous details and a capable cast. When Cate Blanchett makes her entrance into the film, she’s decked out in black and gold— recently widowed and desperate for new money. Branagh never commits to any particular era for the wardrobe, which blithely bounces back and forth between Revolutionary France and the Roaring 20s. Blanchett lightly crafts a bitter stepmother out of just such a suggestive script. As per usual, she aptly gauges just how thickly to lay it on. Branagh’s is simply a remake of the 1950 cartoon, but Blanchett never lets it get too cartoonish. On the first real occasion she exhibits open cruelty to her stepdaughter, she exiles Cinderella from the breakfast table and lets loose a throaty laugh which was mean enough I had to remind myself it was only a movie. Drisella (Sophie McShera, the mighty mouse Daisy from Downton Abbey) and Anastasia are slapsticky brats just as they were in Disney’s first crack at the story. Branagh called in favors from Derek Jacobi and Stellan Skarsgård who play Prince Charming’s old man and the Grand Duke respectively. When the film opens, the Prince learns his father is dying and Jacobi has a pair of scenes which grant dramatic dignity to the film where it might have otherwise been thin. The Prince is played by some chin from Game of Thrones who somewhat managed to look manly even while overwhelmed by a mystery woman.
Lily James isn’t required to exhibit much range as the flighty Lady Rose on Downtown Abbey, but she does get one splendidly surprising scene here. As expected, on the night of the ball, Cinderella’s stepsisters rip apart her gown when she is on the verge of walking out the door. While weeping in the courtyard, a beggar calls from the shadows that she needs milk or bread, and Cinderella leaves her tears to serve the woman. In repayment for her kindness, the woman reveals herself as an angel and transforms a few animals and vegetables into the stuff of royalty. When Cinderella arrives at the ball, she is the last to show, and James plays the entrance with an immense satisfaction. We don’t think for a moment she regards herself worthy of a palace or a prince. She has no plan. She’s just a poor girl who got lucky and is getting a deserved evening off. And while such a well-known fairy tale is nearly pulled inevitably toward a happy conclusion, James is yet so relaxed all throughout it seems she’s in on some saving secret. Her mother’s dying words were an exhortation to be courageous and kind, and she repeats this to herself often, each time lifting herself out of a temptation to the same wrath which is rotting her stepmother’s soul.
The stepmother of the 1950 cartoon is nearly Iago-like in her motiveless cruelty, though screenwriter Chris Weitz (About A Boy, The Golden Compass) invests her with a scosche of backstory that stakes her cruelty in jealousy of the affection Cinderella’s father continued to direct towards his daughter even after remarrying. At least, that’s the way she defends herself at first, though when Cinderella presses the point and demands to know why she is cruel, she says, “Because you’re kind and you’re good and I’m—“ though she storms out of the room before finishing. She knows there is no genuine cause for evil. She knows evil doesn’t make sense. In the end, we’re waiting for her big comeuppance, but she marries the Grand Duke then skips town and the narrator tells us she never sets foot in the kingdom again, though we never hear she’s unhappy. The last time we see the stepmother, she’s looking through the bars of the banister in a house she stole, as though in prison. The shot dissolves and Branagh marries the green in Blanchett’s eyes with the green bars she clutches.
A myth like Cinderella will uphold many retellings, but only if those retellings are faithful to the original texts. Branagh’s version gives us yet another chance to mull the curious little story over again, turning out the pockets for discreet truths. In a kitschy, contemporary rendition, there’s little chance to enter into the myth deeply because the director is constantly putting the audience on guard for innovations and little criticisms of the old, unenlightened material. You can’t lose yourself in the story because the director keeps patting himself on the back and asking you to do the same.
In previous viewings, I have always been baffled by the curious rule which sits at the center of the myth, as well as the apparent violation of this rule. However, after watching Branagh’s Cinderella, the seemingly arbitrary “Be back before midnight” rule of the fairy godmother is revealed as a call to chastity; if Cinderella “stays the night” the prince will know she’s “common.” If she doesn’t stay the night, he knows she’s royal. Accordingly, the glass slipper remains intact even after twelve because the everything-turns-back-at-midnight rule isn’t actually about magic, but virtue. The glass slipper is proof of Cinderella’s chastity— a chastity proven by leaving before it gets too late in the evening. Branagh makes none of this clear, but he doesn’t have to. He sticks with the story, and the magic of the myth sails it through.
If only everyone would stick to the old paths.