Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is a Disney film based on a Disney film, so is double Disney, if you like. It is a live-action adaptation of the 1950 animated version, and an entirely faithful retelling. As such, it comes with no irony, no modern winks aimed at a modern audience and no smarty-pants updating of the smarty-pants kind. It is lush, with dazzling costumes by Sandy Powell, but without any reinvention whatsoever this is a film that, at some point, should have asked itself, ‘OK, I’m all dressed up, but do I actually have anywhere to go?’
It stars Lily James (from Downton, apparently) as our heroine, Ella. Ella had a childhood as golden as her hair. Ella, as we see, lived in a heavenly house with a mummy and a daddy who loved her very much. But then mummy goes and blows it all by dying. Her last words to her daughter are, ‘Have courage and be kind’, which is not what I would say to any child of mine. Probably, my last words would be, ‘Why didn’t you ever call?’ Her doting father then marries a widow (Cate Blanchett, who is wonderful, the best thing in this by far) without noticing she is a total bitch, and then he can’t notice she is a total bitch, as he dies too.
There is a lot of dying early on and also quite a lot later on, when you will feel you are dying, of boredom, of ennui and, possibly, the full weight of the patriarchy, pressing down hard on your chest.
The nasty step-sisters, as played by Sophie McShera (also from Downton, apparently) and Holliday Grainger (not from Downton, amazingly), are intended to provide the humour but as it is familiar panto slapstick it simply isn’t at all funny. I laughed much more at the prince (Richard Madden), who is just such a plank and exactly the sort of prince that Shrek sent up so brilliantly in its smarty-pants way. This prince’s only noteworthy feature is his britches, which are distractingly tight. Or, to put it another way, after having done some research, I can now tell you the male equivalent of ‘camel toe’ is ‘moose knuckle’. I am ill acquainted with the anatomy of the moose, but if its knuckles are as disproportionately bulging as what the prince has in his pants, I simply don’t understand how the moose gets around.
Ella has a miserable time of it because her wicked step-family employ her as a slave, cooking and cleaning and brushing the ashes from the fire, hence their nickname for her, Cinderella. They banish her to the attic and from sitting with them at meals. At no time does Cinderella remonstrate. Instead, she even does happy little dances up in that attic while talking to the four CGI mice who appear to have been around since her childhood — how old are these mice? — and reminding herself to be kind and courageous. She is even more of a doormat, I would say, than my actual doormat, which at least sends up a tuft to trip me up every now and then, and so exhibits some personality.
Meanwhile, the fairy godmother shtick is provided by Helena Bonham Carter. I am a fan of Helena Bonham Carter and, assuming Helena Bonham Carter would camp it up, Helena Bonham Carter-style, I was looking forward to her entrance enormously, but she is awarded very little screen time and is also bland. Do you remember Annette Crosbie’s fabulously bad-tempered fairy godmother in The Slipper and the Rose? That was a fairy godmother I could get on board with, but this one? Uninspired. Come the revolution, of course, the fairy godmother will wave her magic wand and Cinderella will find herself wearing a power suit and going on to achieve fulfilment as the CEO of a major company — Facebook maybe, or Apple — but here? We are simply meant to share her excitement over shoes and frocks. She doesn’t have the wit to clock the ‘moose knuckle’. I wanted to shake her and say, ‘Girl, that moose knuckle is wasted on you!’
The Cinderella story has been around since the 9th century so it must have something going for it. Who doesn’t like a triumphant underdog? But this double Disney version, while visually beautiful, is dreary and insipid. It is all dressed up, with absolutely nowhere to go.