Kenneth Branagh’s old-fashioned take on the classic fairytale feels outmoded compared to subversive Disney films like Frozen. Nicholas Barber is unimpressed.
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Commercially speaking, it was shrewd of Disney to pair their lavish live-action film of Cinderella with Frozen Fever, a seven-minute cartoon featuring the characters from the world-conquering Frozen. Thousands of children will be so desperate for another glimpse of Elsa and Anna that they will beg their parents to take them, and that ploy alone means that Cinderella is guaranteed to be a hit.
In other respects, though, the pairing wasn’t quite so wise, because the new cartoon reminds you how wittily Frozen subverted Disney’s conventions, whereas Cinderella is as achingly traditional as a 21st-Century fairytale movie can be. For instance, remember the sequence in Frozen that had Anna and Hans touring the palace together during Elsa’s coronation ball? Well, there’s an almost identical scene in Cinderella, except without the catchy musical number. Frozen gave proceedings a twist: Hans turned out to be a scoundrel who had been lying to Anna all along. Cinderella, on the other hand, is nowhere near as radical. Here it is just another instance of a handsome prince and a beautiful girl deciding that they should spend their lives together on the basis of one conversation. Even the film’s youngest viewers may consider it a tad old-fashioned.
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Not that they won’t find anything to enjoy in Cinderella. The story moves briskly, there are a few funny moments, and the Ruritanian production design is heightened to kitschy, colourful extremes: every scene looks like the Christmas window display in a French patisserie. But the only genuinely distinctive thing about the film is its outmoded sickly-sweetness.
The director, Kenneth Branagh, starts ladling on the syrup in the opening scenes. We’re introduced to Ella as a little girl who loves her simple rustic life with her pet mice and her adoring parents (Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell) – although it’s one of those simple rustic lives that requires a stately home and a platoon of servants. The family’s smiley smugness is so oppressive that it’s almost a relief when Ella’s mother dies, and it’s definitely a relief to meet her replacements: a snobbish widow (Cate Blanchett) and her two spoilt daughters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger). After Ella loses her father (carelessness, as Oscar Wilde would put it), it seems as if this toxic trio will stir some much-needed vinegar into the film’s treacle.
McShera and Grainger have fun as the sisters, bickering and preening with a stupidity that would do the Kardashians proud. And Blanchett, who has been styled to resemble a society hostess in a 1940s melodrama, is impeccably poised and poisonous as she glides around her new estate. But not even these three interlopers can cloud Ella’s sunny disposition. When they force her to move out of her bedroom and sleep in the attic, she doesn’t complain. When they insist that she cooks their breakfast, she nearly levitates with delight. As played by Lily James (Lady Rose in Downton Abbey), this servile Polyanna doesn’t stop grinning her toothy grin unless she is giggling or singing. Her stepsisters nickname her Cinderella, but Simperella would be closer to the mark.
It’s a bizarrely retrogressive characterisation at a time when fairy-tale heroines are invariably described as “feisty” and “spirited”. In Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White donned a suit of armour. In Brave, Merida was a dead shot with a bow and arrow. But in Cinderella, Ella is a wide-eyed Stepford Wife-in-waiting whose only ambition is to do the housework while wearing a low-cut dress and a push-up bra. The screenplay may have been written by Chris Weitz (the director of About a Boy and The Golden Compass), but it’s hard to believe that the author of Fifty Shades Of Grey wasn’t involved somewhere along the line.
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Ella’s chronic passivity continues throughout the film. She doesn’t get to the palace ball by dint of her own ingenuity or determination, but because she is whisked there by a scatter-brained, meringue-dressed Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, as kooky as ever). Later, she is overjoyed to hear that the prince (Richard Madden) wants to marry her; it doesn’t occur to her that they should get to know each other first. But when her stepmother locks her in the attic, does she try to escape? Does she send a message to the prince? No. She dances around in a dreamy daze, content to talk to her rodent pals, and to let her evening at the palace fade to a happy memory. At this point, you might wonder whether Branagh’s Cinderella really is a conservative fairytale, after all, or whether it’s a disturbing, Lars von Trier-ish portrait of a woman who is driven to insane self-abasement by her parents’ death.
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The catchphrase which Ella’s dying mother passed onto her was, “Have courage and be kind.” But the film’s actual message is that you should keep smiling and put up with whatever abuse you’re handed, because eventually a ditzy fairy and a hunky prince will sort everything out. Elsa and Anna wouldn’t have put up with that cant, and their fans shouldn’t either.