Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” is an entertaining film, notable for its spectacular visual displays — a sea of elaborate costumes amid enchanting fairytale forests, secret gardens, homey cottages and a lavish castle make the traditional fairy tale all the more magical. The screenplay, while often cheesy (as fairytales usually are), is also extremely amusing. The casting is also good — while some might prefer to watch Richard Madden battling against the Lannisters in “Game of Thrones,” he does a fine job as Prince Charming.
Yet, most viewers know the story of Cinderella. There are no surprises or twists, and for a modern remake of a Disney classic, this leaves the spectator a little disappointed. Film directors are constantly remaking classic movies by adding something inspiring to them, showing another side of a character or throwing in a shocking turn of events. While this 2015 Cinderella departs slightly from the Disney cartoon, it does nothing to leave the spectator with the feeling that he just learned something new or saw something original. Really, the only uniqueness of the film lies in its the costumes and in the fairytale kingdom that Branagh brings to life throughout the film.
The movie begins with a picturesque scene of the perfect family — the beautiful mother playing in a grassy meadow with her sweet daughter, waiting for the father to come home. He gives Ella a present and they dance to the front door. The happiness of the scene is cheesy, and its elated mood might be viewed as overdone in another movie, but because this is Cinderella, it is acceptable. The movie is not completely happy-go-lucky, though. There are many moments that cause the spectator to sympathize with Ella and to recognize the sadness of her predicament. These moments come mostly during the scenes shared between Ella and her parents, when she says goodbye to her ill mother and when she beseeches her father not to leave. The importance of the child-parent relationship is emphasized in this version of Cinderella, which adds a layer of depth to the Disney film. The prince has a loving relationship with his father, too. The scenes shared between the prince and the king are endearing, even though the king is forbidding his son from marrying for love, instead insisting he marry a princess to advance the state of the kingdom.
The casting is a strong aspect of the film. Lily James fits the role of Cinderella perfectly. Her sweet, kind, genuine demeanor throughout the movie is convincing, and she acts benevolently without overdoing it. Although one might expect her constant smiling and kindness to her cruel stepmother and stepsisters to be irritating, she performs the role with just the right amount of conflicting emotions. She is not just a perfectly kind, submissive girl — after her stepsisters and stepmother call her Cinderella, she is pushed to a breaking point and flees from the cottage on her horse. Labeling her Cinderella is not only demeaning and insulting, but also makes Ella question who she really is now that her happy life with her parents is merely a memory. The film does not let the spectator feel sad; it does not linger too long on the disturbing element of this scene. Cinderella soon bumps into the prince in the forest, and a lighthearted, romantic mood takes over.
During this encounter, Cinderella and the prince exchange witty, flirtatious banter that is enjoyable to watch and helps modernize their romance. Rather than meeting at the ballroom and falling in love at first sight, the couple meets in the woods spontaneously. Their clever dialogue, along with the onscreen chemistry between James and Madden, makes their romance very convincing.
Helena Bonham Carter plays the fairy godmother splendidly. Her glamorous costume and makeup make her an interesting godmother when paired with her quirky demeanor. She whips up a carriage, horses and footman with not only an air of loving protectiveness over Cinderella, but also with an air of amusement. She knows what she is doing, but she appears to forget how exactly to do it, resulting in a humorous enlargement of the pumpkin, which almost crushes Cinderella.
Cate Blanchet displays her acting skills as she cruelly orders Cinderella around and tries to get what she wants through her daughters, who she recognizes as untalented, unintelligent and bickering girls. Her character could have been further developed. There are numerous instances in the film when it appears the stepmother is going to be a more complex figure — not a completely evil woman who the spectator will grow to hate, but someone who may have a humane side. She reveals that she’s been hurt by the death of her previous two husbands, and she is extremely jealous of Cinderella, who receives more affection from her husband than she does. Her character is never fully developed, though, and she remains stuck in the caricature role of the evil stepmother that is reminiscent of typical evil women in Disney cartoons.
The cinematography adds to the fantastical element of the film. When Cinderella and the prince dance at the ball, the camera follows their movements with a whirling rapidity, mimicking their swirls, dips and turns to create an almost dizzying effect. The spectator does not feel inclined to look away, though, because the camera is showing not only the spectacular elements of the ballroom, but also the whirlwind romance that is taking place. Even before this dancing, the camera plays a large role in giving a spectacular view of the ballroom, with floor-to-ceiling shots that show the golden walls, the glittering chandeliers and the massiveness of the castle. The magnificent costumes are put in the forefront.
Costume designer Sandy Powell successfully creates costumes that replicate a 19th-century period film, but with extravagant colors and patterns that add to the fairytale quality of the film. When Cinderella flees the secret garden at midnight, the camera movements create a dramatic effect. The spectator sees her fleeing; then, the camera cuts to the prince, who is standing in the garden, dumbstruck, before he begins to chase her.
For a brief moment, they make eye contact on the steps, but then she escapes into the carriage for an intense, dramatic runaway scene that is intensified by the rapid camera cuts and suspenseful music score. The camera cuts from the carriage, which is teetering off the edge of a cliff over the sea, to the prince’s guards, who are trying to reach the drawbridge in time. Even though the spectator knows Cinderella will escape, this element of danger, advanced by the cinematography and music, is entertaining.
If you are looking for a romantic fairytale that stays true to the original Disney cartoon, watching Cinderella is well worth your time. But, it is not a groundbreaking film. It takes no risks; instead, it merely retells the well-known story with talented actors, an engaging screenplay and spectacular visuals that remind the audience of childhood enjoyment of fairytales and magic.