Back in the early ’80s, Kenneth Branagh was the most successful young Shakespearean actor since Laurence Olivier. Critics were never big fans of his work, but he showed a remarkable ability to connect with audiences. He nearly made his big break with a film many may recognize called Amadeus (Milos Forman, USA 1984) but his film career instead didn’t find much traction until he put together his theater troupe (including his then-wife Emma Thompson and his mentor Derek Jacobi) to create a film version of one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, with himself taking on not just the lead role but the position of director in Henry V (Kenneth Branagh, UK 1989). The film was a huge success for Branagh both as a director and as an actor, and that success continued for several years with the minor exception of the quickly-forgotten Peter’s Friends (UK 1992). Then, his Hamlet (UK/USA 1996) met with a more mixed reception (wrongly, as far as I am concerned–it’s a brilliant film), with many finding the four-hour runtime excessive and Branagh’s performance an over-the-top attempt to outdo Olivier’s most famous role (Branagh was better–I’ll put that on record anytime). He was still a promising film director with some very strong credits already under his belt (Dead Again [USA 1991] is an impressive film that has since been forgotten, but it shows off that there’s more to Branagh than being a modern Olivier impersonator.) and a fantastically gifted, charismatic actor, but it seems that the criticisms of what he hoped to be his magnum opus stung him.
It took a few years before Branagh returned to directing with the ill-conceived Shakespeare musical Love’s Labour’s Lost (UK/France/USA 2000) and a few years again until he returned with another Shakespeare film and a return to his original fascination with Mozart, neither of which got much attention from anyone. Then, in 2011, he returned to directing with a surprising presence in the Marvel stable for Thor (USA), which he followed with another forgettable action film in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (USA 2014). However, the financial success of these films seems to have returned the once-promising director to the point where he can take on a top-notch project. Disney could hire whomever it wanted to direct its live-action version of Cinderella, and it went with Branagh–that says something about where he currently stands. A guy who was rejected repeatedly by the Harry Potter franchise now gets to take on one of the signature stories of the biggest-name movie studio in history, and I for one welcomed his return.
For his live-action version of the quintessential fairy tale, Branagh worked with screenwriter Chris Weitz to remove some of the problems that have always bothered me about the story. The father who is normally a rather inexplicably absent character is explained as a loving father who dies just after his remarriage. (Though his desire to marry the widow is still rather inexplicable–she’s an obviously awful human being and there just isn’t much to suggest that she hasn’t always been one.) The Prince is now able to recognize the title character when he sees her after the ball (and indeed at the ball, since he now meets her beforehand), though he goes through with the pantomime of having her try on the slipper anyway. It’s now a story that, while it still exists in a world of make-believe, is closer to the real world, and it’s all the better for it. The dramatic power of the nobody from nowhere who no one thought about getting a chance to become a princess is back, and the silliness of the traditional story’s plot holes is reduced. Even the typical problem with casting Cinderella (Somehow we don’t know she’s beautiful until the ball.) is avoided, as the Stepmother even comments about how beautiful Ella is but she is simply hidden from view.
Similarly, Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos present a film that generally looks relatively natural whenever it’s in the natural world. It uses a lot of bright, highly saturated colors, but it sticks mostly to natural light (look at how dark the palace scenes are compared to most large-budget films–there are shadows on people’s faces all over, the areas under the staircases are dark as night–it’s much closer to natural lighting than most films like this) and avoids using more CGI than necessary (it is, after all, a fairy tale about magic) outside of the scenes involving the Fairy Godmother’s magic. And because they stick to something looking more natural, the visual effects crew’s work on the Fairy Godmother’s magic is as fantastical and eye-popping as it’s meant to be–we can tell that what she’s doing is magic not just because she’s breaking laws of physics but because it looks like magic–it’s an effect that an animated film could never really achieve, and it’s something for which Branagh deserves to be credited.
The acting was, as one would expect, good enough for roles that required little. However, shockingly, there were actually two standouts. I’ve never been as big a fan of Cate Blanchett as many critics, but she brought a level of humanity and nuance to her role as the Stepmother that really made the part stand out. She’s not just evil–she’s someone who has been hurt by her husbands’ deaths and who is constantly reminded that she is second in her second husband’s heart, behind his daughter. She’s conniving, but she’s not crazy. When Ella asks her, “Why are you so cruel,” and she cannot even really answer the question, it’s because she doesn’t want to face the realization that she has just become a cruel, heartless person, and that realization is written across her face. Meanwhile, Derek Jacobi, in almost no screen time, established a deep, complex character as the king. It was no surprise to see an incredible performance from Jacobi, but he’s someone who gets forgotten in the public’s mind far too often, and it was good to see him assert himself in so little time. Few actors could have turned that character into anything more than a plot device. No one stood out in a bad way, which is about all you could ask from the rather two-dimensional roles required (including the lead).
Patrick Doyle has been Branagh’s composer for over a quarter century, and he has normally risen to whatever task Branagh has put in front of him. His one big weakness is that he tends to be bordering on melodramatic, and sometimes he doesn’t have the sense to pull back from those tendencies when he should. In this film, we saw both his strengths and his weaknesses. His stirring, rich, powerful arrangements made the magical scenes even stronger, but his reliance on dramatic cliche made his score obtrusive at many points in the more natural scenes, particularly early in the film.
All told, Cinderella is a fine film. It’s a better film than a live-action version of the world’s most famous fairy tale really deserves to be, and it’s a triumphant announcement that Branagh is in fact the director we thought he could be 20 years ago. It’s not perfect, and the source material and studio gave it limitations that were probably impossible to overcome, but it’s about as good as one could expect it to be.
- The heavy-handed narrator really shouldn’t have been there, but its lines were really well-written, so that makes up for it a bit.
- A Branagh trademark: the typically lily-white court of the Prince includes a black man, and the black advisor is the most loyal. Branagh was always inserting other races and nationalities into Shakespeare, where performers are usually almost uniformly white and British.
- It was an interesting reversal of the norm for the Prince to be “promised to” another country, though at least he got to be promised to a really pretty princess, which is not true of a lot of the reversed roles in the past.
- That first song that played in the credits is one of the worst things I’ve ever heard. It made me want to walk out.