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Cinderella | Review

Bippity Boppity…Boo: Branagh’s Fairy Tale for Hire

CinderellaDoes anyone remember when Kenneth Branagh was directing superior cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare before eventually becoming the director known for Thor (2010) and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)? Well, in the mix of recent live-action fairy tale adaptations from Disney, he’s scored another cookie-cutter dud with Cinderella, a film so pronouncedly square and resolutely mimed that it could only possibly feel relevant to those severely and distantly removed from the classic fairy tale.

Without any sort of modifications to the culturally prolific tale, whatsoever, we meet a young girl named Ella (eventually played by Lily James), who has rich parents (Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell). They’re not royalty, but they are rich, and treat their little girl as perfect as she could be treated. But the mother dies from some kind of a disease, but looks ravishing right till the very end. Years pass, and Ella’s dad decides he should get married again, and he finds a suitable replacement in recently widowed Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who brings a gnarled Persian cat and two snotty daughters (Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera) in tow. Dad dies on a business trip, and before you know it, Ella becomes renamed Cinderella as a cruel joke, spirited away to the attic, where she consorts with a lively group of computer generated mice, treated like an indentured service to the Tremaine clan. But one day in the woods she meets a man named Kit (Richard Madden), not knowing he is the Prince of the land. Smitten with her beauty and kindness, he vows to meet her again and marry her.

As is generally the case with Grimm’s fairy tales, the original stories are quite dark and violent. Cinderella’s step-sisters, if you’re familiar, actually cut off parts of their feet in order to stuff them into that damned glass slipper (something also heavily toned down in Disney’s scrubbed adaptation of the mish-mash Into the Woods). Just lots of impertinent panting here.

Many may find those damning Branagh’s brownnosing to be unfair—this is, after all, a Disney production. Consider the declawed Maleficent. But should we have to check our expectations at the door? Must we just accept the fact that no challenging, contentious material will ever be present in studio films forced to pander to the conservative paradigm of Middle American values? The question isn’t meant to be rhetorical, and the continual disappointment has long sunk into a benumbed apathetic fugue state for anyone actually expecting an entity like Disney to tarnish its property with controversy. But back when the film was in pre-production, Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo; Never Let Me Go) was in talks to direct before swiftly leaving the project due to the stranglehold on the material, so there is creative interest to inflate these types of films with a bit of innovation.

That said, Cate Blanchett as the evil stepmother should be reason for many to check it out. She’s winningly tyrannical, swathed in decadent greens that highlight her fuming eyes, as if she were about to mutate into a Komodo Dragon. And yet, this version gives her almost nothing to do as this viciously bored, privileged harpy. The ‘abuse’ of Cinderella revolves around making the poor girl clean, left to eat and sleep in the attic. This never develops into the A Child Called It scenario that the fairy tale eerily recalls, so the presence of Helena Bonham Carter’s (whose relationship with Branagh must now seem…interesting) fairy godmother simply seems unwarranted.

If Blanchett feels wasted, all the other players are akin to vapidly pleasant chunks of wood. Lily James is tedious to behold as the mournful beauty, an actress who so very clearly, with her dark eyebrows and brown eyes, is not Goldilocks blonde. Likewise, the forced romance with Richard Madden’s (from “Game of Thrones”) Prince Charming is utterly lachrymose. A host of other notable players, like Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgaard, Ben Chaplin, and Hayley Atwell, are mere automatons. Somehow, Branagh’s version makes that 1998 Drew Barrymore vehicle Ever After: A Cinderella Story (from the director also responsible for seeing the same actress play Amy Fisher only five years prior) seem worthy of reconsideration.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.


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