You really shouldn’t walk into a screening of a film not expecting an awful lot. As the mantra goes, you’re supposed to go in hoping for something wonderful, else you soon go down a cynical cul-de-sac, with little hope of return. Cinderella, though, was a stretch. I can understand the business sense to Disney of making a live action Cinderella – heck, the thoroughly ordinary Alice In Wonderland took more than $1bn at the box office – but what about the appeal to a director such as Kenneth Branagh? And, more importantly, what about the appeal to, well, us?
Because the problem with such well told tales is just that. You know what’s going to happen, and when. Then you read the film is just shy of two hours, and recall the moment in bad adaptations of A Christmas Carol when you realise you’ve still got two ghosts to go. Is this just an exercise in ticking a live action take on a classic story off the list?
Well, if it is, it’s a thoroughly charming one. It really is. And Branagh really is a strong fit here. It’s his most ‘outdoors’ film since 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing, and his directorial style and spirit holds much in common with that movie. He loves taking us round green locations, pulling back and letting us see things from perspective. And whilst his camera occasionally seems to go a bit overboard – particularly when the clock strikes 12 and Cinders must run from the ball – there’s a real sense of gleeful enthusiasm about Branagh’s approach.
It’s infectious, too. Backed by a glorious Patrick Doyle score, this Cinderella eschews the need to fill in backstory that wasn’t there, and focuses on telling the story we know, really well. This is welcome, and it means we don’t get anything akin to finding out more about Willy Wonka’s early years for instance. Rather, we get the story of Ella – played by Lily James – as she becomes parted from her parents, and slowly falls under the charge of her less than pleasant stepmother. Do note: in spite of the U certifcate, there is a body count here.
To Branagh’s credit, he gets the pacing right, with the film giving you plenty of time to admire the sheer craft of the costumes and sets, but with a keen eye on keeping the story going. Branagh’s stage work has seen him tell familiar stories before, and you almost sense he’s finding the sweet spot before familiarity breeds proverbial contempt.
He’s aided by Lily James, on screen for much of the film, who’s really excellent here. She feels both movie star-like and human as Cinderella. In fact she eclipses the surprisingly little used Cate Blanchett. If there’s perhaps a slight misstep with this Cinderella story, it’s that Blanchett’s migration from passive aggressive to outright aggressive isn’t quite sinister enough. Think back to Enchanted: Susan Sarandon’s character there is brilliant, but not given the screen space to make a full impact. There’s a similar criticism that can be levelled here.
Elsewhere? Holliday Grainger in particular and Sophie McShera have lots of fun as Cinderella’s stepsisters, and Game Of Thrones‘ Richard Madden is a fine prince. But there are plenty of nice surprises in the supporting cast too – even CG creatures that don’t jar – and Nonso Anozie is on particularly good form.
Perhaps a bit more humour wouldn’t hurt in places, and there are moments when you get the impression that the film is edging towards a musical number, only to pull back. It’d be interesting to know how close the production came to including songs, but it’s a wise choice to play it as straight as it does.
For the emphasis is on a definitive live action telling of the story. What’s particularly welcome is that while the target audience have little chance of being shortchanged here, nor will those accompanying them. Branagh’s Cinderella is a handsomely mounted piece of work, that’s engaging, fun and proper, old fashioned family entertainment. It bodes well. Just don’t make a straight to DVD sequel this time, though…
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