Kenneth Branagh, “Cinderella” (2015)
Being a Disney production, this live-action version of the tale as Disney tells it can only go so far in its reinterpretation for a new audience. Director Kenneth Branagh is canny enough to make a fairy-tale that appeals as much to adults as to children while subtly shifting the focus slightly so that the attention focuses on the rivalry between Cinderella (Lily James) and her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and the different sets of values they represent. In this way, Branagh tries to say something about how youth, innocence, spontaneity, authenticity and having regard for one’s fellow travellers in life, be they high-born or low-born, will triumph over cynicism, calculation, hierarchy and upholding traditions and customs that may once have been relevant but have now lost their meaning and are observed simply for their own sake. Branagh sets his story in a lavish faux 18th-century wonderland where artifice and nature become one and the same, and Disney magic is made fresh yet familiar.
Branagh sticks closely to the Disney story but at least he gives his characters motives and he surrounds Lily James and Richard Madden (who places Prince Charming) with seasoned actors – all of them British including James and Madden, save for the Australian Blanchett – who play their roles quite subtly. Blanchett may never single-handedly save the Australian film industry by staying home and sponsoring young directors, script-writers and actors but if she’s going to pursue more Hollywood projects in competition with other ageing actresses (and I for one would advise her against that since work for actresses aged 40+ years in Hollywood tends to be rather scarce), she may as well have a ball: she clearly relishes her role as the sadistic stepmother, flamboyant and elegant in dress, scheming and vindictive in nature. Yet audiences can sympathise with her plight: in an age when women of her socioeconomic status were expected not to work but to depend on their fathers or husbands for money and material wellbeing, Blanchett’s stepmother, twice widowed, is clearly desperate to marry well and to see her daughters, silly and spoiled as they are, married off well too. If love can blossom as well, that’s a bonus; but alas, the stepmother discovers her second husband does not love her much at all. This is about as far as Disney will go to demonstrate how in many ways upper-class women had fewer options and freedoms than their lower-class sisters did in early modern Western society. An irony exists then, when the stepmother banishes Cinderella to the servants’ quarters after the death of the girl’s father forces the family to scrimp and save by letting the hired help go: by having to do hard work, Cinderella becomes a capable young woman, able to empathise with other lowly people, to spend more time with her mouse friends and to have more freedom (to ride a horse into the countryside where she meets Prince Charming on a hunting trip) than her step-sisters who are forced by their mother to learn piano, singing, drawing and other idle pastimes expected of young ladies of their class (and not doing very well at any of these activities).
James and Madden bring freshness and some substance to their respective roles but that’s all that can really be said about them. James’ experience in acting is sorely tested in her last scene with Blanchett and her last line of dialogue to the other woman sounds unconvincing. For a film preaching conservative Christian charity, this part really goes down a clunker. The fate of the stepmother and her daughters afterwards becomes so ambiguous as to suggest (horror of horrors!) that they might have been banished, which goes against the grain of Cinderella’s maturing and her capacity for compassion, but in an original twist, Prince Charming’s chief advisor with whom the stepmother was getting a bit chummy also goes into exile so there’s the suggestion that they have hooked up together and hopefully will live happily ever after. (Branagh might have brought some loose ends over from his Hamlet acting / directing effort from way back in the mid-1990s.) There are moments in the film that hint that Cinderella might not be as kind as she should be, that she might be capable of anger and revenge against those who have wronged her. Madden’s Prince Charming is allowed to develop some character in a small subplot in which he and his father (Derek Jacobi) argue over the sort of woman he should marry: the king is all for an arranged marriage with a princess as custom dictates but the prince desires to marry someone who is innately good and natural. The role of the king is no stretch for Jacobi who only has to remember bits and pieces of past Shakespearean roles but he’s better off slumming his pensioner days in any fluff piece by Branagh than with some other British directors.
The film is packed with CGI flourishes which are to be expected and its landscapes and architecture are deliberately overdone and artificial. There’s no such thing as too much excess, especially excess of the smooth and saccharine kind, and the biggest problem in a film of this kind is for the actors not to compete with this excess but to act in a way that is either minimal or natural without being swallowed up by the tinsel. Happily Branagh knows when to pull back on the lavishness to allow his cast moments to be themselves. Appropriately for a film in which power passes from an older generation (and the values it represents) to a younger, the setting is some time in the 18th century: an age where absolutist monarchy was at its height but would soon be felled by revolutionary activity inspired by the Enlightenment. The narrative is slow to get off the ground, and quite a lot of time could be shaved off the first half of the film, but then starts to move very rapidly once the main characters are established.
I’m sure everyone associated with this film has done better work or will do better work, and I’m certain Branagh didn’t sweat much at all over it, but as it is, “Cinderella” is Disney-perfect in a way that satisfies its core audience of little girls and their big sisters and mums, caters to the public’s desire for pre-9/11 innocence and nostalgia, and reinforces traditional Christian values of kindness, courage and stoicism in adversity, forgiveness and hope for a better world: values that are sorely needed in an age when political, economic and cultural chaos are becoming more apparent.
The fact that Disney relies on a British director and a British / Australian cast to carry off one of its flagship Disney fairy-tale staples in a live-action film probably does not say very much that is positive for the current state of American directing and acting.