Starring Lilly James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi
Two time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett has elevated the films bearing her prestigious name since 1998's Elizabeth. Disney’s latest live action fairy tale adaptation Cinderella, marks the first time I can say that Blanchett’s inclusion in a film hasn’t elevated it. In the last 50 years there have been well over 30 Cinderella movies; it’s apparently the easiest story to tell from Disney’s classic collection, and also the most beloved. Director Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy, The Nutty Professor II) don’t necessarily make any grand revelations or updates to the fairy tale, but there is an expansion to some of the more simplistic elements while tipping it’s crown to many of the memorable moments from the animated film.
Ella (James) was raised to be kind and have courage, not to see the world as it is, but as it could be. Following the death of both parents, Ella is under the care of her stepmother Lady Tremaine (Blanchett), who forces the young girl to sleep in the attic and do the chores even though the house rightfully belongs to her family. Ella understands things could always be worse; a horse ride to clear her mind, she meets Kit (Madden), who evades his princely title on their first meeting. With a little magic from her fairy godmother (Carter), Ella manages to attend the King’s ball, where the prince is supposed to choose a wife.
After 30 similar adaptations, being faithful to the source material isn’t something to applaud.
What the story lacks in a modern update, it nearly makes up for with outlandishly colorful costumes and set decoration. Branagh borrowed Martin Scoresese’s best when he hired 3 time Oscar winning production designer Ferretti Dante and 3 time Oscar winning costume designer Sandy Powell. Their stamp on the film will be what it’s remembered for at the end of the year, not the performances or the storyline. Branagh does for Cinderella what Joe Wright did for Anna Karenina; no expense is spared, and no dark corner is without a thoughtful accent piece. Even some of the actors' teeth are bigger and brighter; both Madden and Carter debut very noticeable and distracting veneers.
The few expansion or alterations to the story go a long way: Lady Tremaine’s deal to Ella, meeting the prince prior to the ball, etc. I mentioned Joe Wright already, but I think his vision of Cinderella (like his stunning adaptation of Pride & Prejudice) might have made this more interesting than simply adapting the cartoon into live action as Branagh has done. After 30 similar adaptations, being faithful to the source material isn’t something to applaud. Blanchett’s Tremaine is most puzzling, as her despicable behavior is without origin or explanation (Ella calling her out on the vileness is pretty satisfying). Wouldn’t a poor, widowed stepmother not want her step daughter to win the prince's heart if it meant more money and prestige to the entire family? Tremaine’s behavior is simply counter-productive to financial difficulties she speaks of, and Blanchett is far more deserving than a character so one sided and ill conceived.
Like a breathtakingly beautiful and lavishly decorated cake that has no flavor on the inside.