3 stars (out of 4)
Once upon a time — any time before Frozen, to be exact — fairy tales revolved around young girls dreaming of marrying a handsome prince and living happily ever after.
This telling of Cinderella adheres strictly to that book. And yet it’s a lavish delight sure to enchant audiences of all ages well past midnight.
Porcelain-faced Lily James (Downton Abbey) plays sweet Ella, who’s adored by her mother and father. Her beloved mum soon falls gravely ill and dies, but not before telling her only child to “have courage and be kind.”
Ella sticks by that credo, even as her once-idyllic life crumbles before her twinkling eyes. First her lonely father (Ben Chaplin) remarries and brings home a wicked new wife (Cate Blanchett) and her two brat-tastic, redheaded daughters. Then he passes away during a business trip.
Ella is in mourning, but the new lady of the house wants none of that. And as soon as she coolly tells the orphan to call her “Madame,” we know that this woman means business. Poor Ella is treated like a servant in her own manor — and an unpaid one, at that. She lives in the attic. Eats scraps. Cleans the floors. Talks to mice. (Actually, the mice thing is of her own accord. They’re her only friends.) Serving breakfast with black ash smeared on her face, she’s teased by a stepsister and dubbed Cinderella. Catchy, no?
Those are sunshine and rainbows compared to the night when she’s left all dressed up and no place to go. Cinderella had planned to go the grand ball at the palace to see the apprentice she had met in the forest a few days earlier. (She didn’t realize the dashing lad was really the single-and-looking prince, played by Richard Madden). But her stepmonster, upon seeing Cinderella aglow in her mother’s stunning dress, rips it to shreds and banishes her from attending.
Before you can say “bibbidi bobbidi boo,” a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) appears. With her sparkling white dress and gleaming smile, she lives up to her predecessors — only now she delivers a bit of good-natured kookiness too. (Repeat: The character is played by Helena Bonham Carter). The godmother waves her magic wand and gives the heroine a gorgeous transformation, down to the iridescent glass slippers. She goes to the ball, meets the prince, and well, we all know where this is going.
This is a straightforward plot description with good reason: Director Kenneth Branagh keeps his film old-fashioned and, well, a little safe. Some may quibble that this kind of snark-free narrative is hopelessly dated in 2015. (Cinderella can’t even post before-and-after selfies on Instagram!). But that’s what makes this rendition so charming and timeless.
Besides, it’s not like Branagh doesn’t bring color into the staid fairy tale world. The prince’s fete is a visual feast, enhanced by stunning costumes and production design. And Cinderella’s grand entrance proves why she’s the ultimate belle of the ball. It’s a splendid scene, and it comes courtesy of the same director who helmed Thor.
More deliciousness comes courtesy of a two-time Oscar winning pro. In the money role, Blanchett is disarmingly icy and cruel, refusing to show even a trace of sympathy to her step-daughter. In fact, in a bit of a third-act twist, she reveals her own tragic history to a bewildered Cinderella — and yet even then her voice scarcely rises above a venom-dripping whisper.
‘Tis a shame Cinderella and her prince aren’t more three-dimensional. They don’t even break into song, for crying out loud! Still, watching Cinderella’s gilded carriage turn back into a pumpkin as the clock strikes 12 thrills, as does the magic moment when she falls in love.
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