Several years ago, I attended a job interview where I thought the person interviewing me was asking sarcastic questions. I promptly delivered what I felt were suitably witty, sarcastic answers until I suddenly realised, mid-interview, that my interviewer was in deadly earnest. I had something of a similar experience during the first ten minutes of the new live action Cinderella. The Timotei commercial visuals immediately gave me a sugar headache, and the opening lines felt so saccharine that I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a layer of irony that I was somehow missing, especially given recent deliberately unconventional fairy tales such as Maleficent, Frozen, or Enchanted.
Shortly afterwards, I realised that irony, sarcasm and cynicism would not feature in any way during Kenneth Branagh’s deliberately by-the-book take on Cinderella. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did take me a while to adjust before finally being bludgeoned into suspension of disbelief somewhere in the middle of the movie. As a fairy tale, Cinderella is all but bullet proof, but it has been done before, definitively, in Disney’s 1950 animated movie and more recent revisionist versions including the massively underrated Ever After: A Cinderella Story. Sadly Branagh’s film is not sufficiently distinctive to be regarded as anything other than passable. Those looking for the darker elements of the original text (including foot mutilations) definitely need not apply.
That said, Branagh’s direction is good, and so are the leads. Lily James looks the part, and Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother is great casting. There are also interesting bit parts for the likes of Derek Jacobi and Stellan Skarsgard, but what lets the whole thing down for me is Chris Weitz’s screenplay – not because it is overly earnest, but because frankly this Cinderella is just too good to be true. The key to making a role like this work is to add a touch of self-mockery, akin to adding that pinch of salt to a cake recipe. For example, Errol Flynn remains the definitive screen Robin Hood because he sends himself up a little, knowing that without that humour he would just be too heroic to be believable. Here Cinderella is just too angelic, even though Cinderella is meant to be angelic. I hope that makes sense.
Thankfully, Branagh does just enough to make the film work by including humorous moments such as the royal artist who paints the Prince, Alex McQueen’s amusingly pompous town crier, and Helena Bonham Carter’s agreeably eccentric fairy godmother. Richard Madden is a bit of a non-entity as the Prince, but like his co-star he looks the part, and he does get one, genuinely affecting moment with Derek Jacobi. So kudos to Chris Weitz for that scene at least.
On a moral/spiritual level, this embraces the usual family friendly themes. Emphasising courage and kindness is certainly admirable, but I couldn’t help thinking Cinderella might have struggled a tiny bit more to eventually forgive her stepmother, even if the forgiveness message is well intended.
I know some will read this review and think I’m too cynical and not the target audience, but nothing could be further from the truth. I love many of the Disney fairy tales, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, and more recently Tangled, which after repeated viewings I now consider as good as the afore-mentioned stone cold classics. I also enjoy the afore-mentioned versions of Cinderella, so I really wanted to like this film.
In the end, what we have is an adequate take on a classic story that will certainly find an audience, but one that for me could have done with just a hint of edginess to distinguish it. After all, a spoonful of salt helps the sugar go down.