CINEMA by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
Cinderella - a queen by virtue of her service
, April 11, 2015
Cinderella (rated G), directed by Kenneth Branagh, is reviewed by Symeon J. Thompson.
Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is an enchanting and virtuosic masterpiece of cinema. The uber-Shakespearean has brilliantly used his experience fashioning rich and intelligent versions of the Bard’s tales and applied it to this iconic fairy-tale. In so doing, he has crafted a masterly meditation on grief, grieving and courage, with just enough magic to make it amazing.
The story is the one we are familiar with, especially as it draws heavily on the animated musical, Cinderella (1950), of everyone’s childhood. Ella (Eloise Webb) loses her mother (Hayley Atwell). After her father (Ben Chaplin) remarries, he dies as well, leaving Ella with her cruel and petty stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), and stepsisters, Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger).
Lily James as Cinderella
She grows into a confident and mature young woman (Lily James), who chooses to look after her family home and her stepfamily, more so from duty and pity, than from coercion. One day, while riding in the forest, she saves a great stag from hunters, in the process verbally duelling with the huntsman Kit (Richard Madden), an “apprentice at the palace, learning his father’s trade” — the trade of kingship.
We all know this story. This is the charm of Branagh’s film. It is a classic, an archetypal tale that by its very nature speaks to us. The plot alone, like that of the Greek myths, the Bible or Branagh’s beloved Shakespeare, is enough to maintain our interest and keep us engaged, appealing as it does to primal drives and ideas.
The challenge when adapting any of these fundamental tales is how to flesh them out when in a dramatic medium. The trend in recent years has been to subvert the core narrative, usually by changing the motivations of key characters. To be fair, while this approach seems terribly modern, it’s as old as the Greeks — Euripides’ plays tend to be subversions of favoured myths that play with audience expectations.
Branagh does something that, while it seems simple, is actually a lot more difficult. Rather than crafting depth by rearranging the plot to make it more fitting for modern psychologies, politics and cultural trends — in the style of Maleficent (2014), Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) or even the Shrek series (2001, 2004 and 2010) — Branagh dives into the depths of the characters, seeking the “why” of their actions.
This is the same approach that he takes in his astonishing versions of Shakespeare, such as his full-length Hamlet (1996). That film showed Hamlet’s conflict, without reducing him to a psychological case-study, and made sure that characters such as Claudius or Polonius were neither comic relief nor cut-out villains. They were men with reasons for what they did.
Likewise in Cinderella. As the narrator remarks, Lady Tremaine “wears her grief wonderfully well”, in a chilling portrayal by Cate Blanchett of a woman who has lost all her security, and is dedicated to regaining it. It also hints at the battle within her, as she knows that her new husband still loves his deceased wife more than her, and that Ella reminds her every day of her inner loneliness, making her petty and cruel.
Ella, on the other hand, is driven by her mother’s dying instructions: “Have Courage, and Be Kind”. Unlike more passive retellings, this is a Cinderella with real agency who chooses to look after the house, and serve her stepfamily. She is no simple victim. Their unpleasantness means little to her for much of the film, as her spirit is indomitable and it is clear the she pities them. Unlike her stepmother, who considers others, especially men, as fools to be used, Ella treats everyone and everything with respect.
There is a psychological realism in this film that is common to myths, legends and fairy-tales. This is the realism that says that not only do actions have consequences, but that how we react within ourselves to events forms who we are.
This is a film where responsibility, integrity and thoughtfulness are celebrated. But, once again, it is not a simplistic narrative of self-belief. If it were, the heroine would have been Lady Tremaine, who lives on her belief in herself and her capacities. Instead, it is her self-belief that brings about her selfishness and isolation.
If it were not for her fairy godmother (battily and beautifully portrayed by Helena Bonham-Carter) Cinderella would not have gone to the ball. This is the fairytale aspect, that Cinderella’s happy ending is outside of her control, an aspect that resonates with the very Christian ideas behind the story in its European retelling.
The psychological realism of the movie complements this by showing Cinderella as a woman in control of that which she could control, that she was, in fact, a queen by virtue of her service.
Ultimate, Cinderella shows that if one wants a fulfilling life, one needs to “Have Courage, and Be Kind”.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).