The story of Cinderella needs no retelling. The 1950 Disney animation is as much a favourite today as it was back then. So when Kenneth Branagh was announced to direct an action version of the beloved cartoon, it was widely criticised to be “unnecessary”. Well, those critics will have to eat their words, because Cinderella gave the fairy tale a lot more depth than any of its predecessors combined.
In the original Disney animation, Cinderella is kind and lovely, and the wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters horrible and mean, but seemingly for no apparent reason other than that being innate to their personalities. Branagh injects into this classic tale of going from rags to riches reason and conviction.
Here, Cinderella (Lily James) is not only compassionate just because she is. It’s because she lost her mother at a young age, who upon her deathbed asked Ella to promise she’ll always “have courage, and be kind.”
Similarly, Lady Tremaine the stepmother (Cate Blanchett) is not evil for no reason. It’s because she had lost her one true love to death before she married Cinderella’s father, who then dies also. Hardened by the harsh cards life had dealt her, and jealous of her stepdaughter who could be so good when she cannot move past her own bitterness, Lady Tremaine resorts to animosity.
By giving each of the principal roles a back story to validate their character, Branagh has made Cinderella believable and relatable. He gives the audience a cast of characters whose motives and emotions are realistic, which separates this version from any other you may have seen before.
Yes, there are personified animals who seem to understand and communicate with Cinderella; yes, there is a fairy godmother played to perfection by the eccentric Helena Bonham Carter; and yes, the fundamental elements key to a magical fairy tale are all still there. But anchored by the catchphrase “have courage, and be kind”, a message so important today when gender, sexual orientation, and racial equality are so widely discussed, Cinderella is made relevant to 2015.
The movie also challenges the outdated stereotypes of its original animation.
Branagh’s Cinderella isn’t pining after a love interest, her priority is to preserve the home in which she has so many happy memories of her golden childhood with her parents who love her. And she doesn’t take her stepmother’s and stepsister’s abuse in silence, she shows vulnerability and dismay, and questions why she is treated this way. Blanchett is especially magnificent as Lady Tremaine. Flawlessly elegant in designs befitting the fantasy genre, yet simultaneously contemporary, the award-winning actress is a villain you want to hate but can’t.
The prince is also not as one-dimensional. He doesn’t fall in love with Cinderella when he first sees her at the ball, but at a chance encounter in the woods before the ball. He falls in love with a girl shares common values and world views as him. Branagh also gives us a Prince who isn’t afraid to curl up in his father the King’s arms when he needs to cry.
It’s true, Branagh isn’t offering a version of Cinderella with a great big twist in the end that makes it unrecognizable from its original fairy tale. (The way Maleficent did to Sleeping Beauty.) However, he’s created a timeless tale that is relatable, and a treat for the eyes. You leave feeling you want to believe in the magic of kindness; and how can that be bad?