Hollywood filmmakers are no slouches these days when it comes to subverting or sending-up fairy-tale conventions. But Kenneth Branagh does something much more daring. He plays things straight.
There’s nothing the least bit glib or snarky about his live-action adaptation of Cinderella. In place are all the fondly familiar elements you remember from Charles Perrault’s 18th-century tale and Disney’s 1950 animated version – including the magically transformed pumpkin and mice, and the glass slipper that slips from the winsome heroine’s foot at the stroke of midnight – but a deft wave of Branagh’s directorial wand ensures they come up looking fresh.
Lily James’s radiant Cinderella sparkles, too, even under a coating of soot as her downtrodden orphan endures the spiteful regime of a cruel stepmother (Cate Blanchett, magnificently haughty) and snooty stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger, a gleefully ghastly double act).
But her Cinderella is no wet rag. She’s far from limp when she first encounters the prince (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) in the midst of a woodland hunt and it’s her lively wit as much as her beauty that makes her so alluring.
This non-canonical episode, contrived for the film, is a good example of the way Chris Weitz’s screenplay nimbly tweaks tradition to make the story work for a contemporary audience. In another nice detail here, Weitz has Madden’s charming prince – preserving his true identity from Cinderella – claim to be an apprentice at the palace, learning his father’s trade.
So Branagh’s film has the human touch, but it doesn’t stint on the magic and spectacle, either. Sandy Powell’s costumes and Dante Ferretti’s production design are suitably ravishing, and the eye-popping CGI – relatively sparingly used – comes into its own during the story’s big transformation scene, when Helena Bonham Carter’s delightfully dotty fairy godmother, an amused twinkle in her eye, turns pumpkin, mice, lizards and goose into carriage, horses, footmen and driver.
Finding the enduring enchantment in the age-old tale, Branagh’s own accomplishments as director are no less dazzling.
Certificate U. Runtime 113 mins. Director Kenneth Branagh.
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