It’s absolutely stunning. A fairytale as familiar as Cinderella, the trick in sprucing it up for a new generation is figuring out how to rework the most precious treasure that smells distinctly of mothballs seem fresh again. Director Kenneth Branagh, who has gone from Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to Thor, creates a dazzling dream of a live-action movie with a surprisingly obvious solution by sprinkling some pixie dust where it will be notice most: casting and costumes. And it’s not a musical.
The radiant Lily James (best known as the cousin Lady Rose on Downton Abby), stars as Ella, a porcelain-skinned Disney heroine who is mistreated by her stepmother and her two nitwit daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera). Sound familiar? It definitely sounds very true to the book, well, that’s because it is. But what gives the new Cinderella its deliciously sinister spark is who’s doing the tormenting. Enter Cate Blanchett, who lets it rip in a delirious swirl of candy-colored evil. From her ruby-red lips to her Sandy Powell-designed costumes and courtesy of the legendary Dante Ferretti’s production design, which are all kinds of wonderful. A cross between Coco Chanel and Norma Desmond, she smartly plays her harpy-like personality so well to the audience.
Alas, this is Cinderella’s story — Ella’s forced to live in the drafty attic, eat leftovers, do menial chores, and sleep by the burning embers of the fireplace. Even her first meeting, on horseback, with Kit (Richard Madden), a dreamy prince with a jaw so chiseled and blue eyes that you could get lost in, Ella describes of ideas on how to run a kingdom. The rest of the story from the pumpkin chariot, the glass slipper, and so forth, is the epitome of faithfulness.
Overall, it was a great opportunity to create a whole life beyond the fairytale, which is already so beautiful as it is, but making it richer and giving each character their own specific back stories. Kenneth Branagh kept it light and magical, much like a fairytale.
I’m still a bit wary of the tale’s retrograde notions of what constitutes wish fulfillment for girls. But the element of strength from unity is something audiences will definitely respond to. A story about two people coming together who actually bring out the best in one another, and from that love comes strength. But the fizzy cocktail combination of Blanchett’s cartoonish hauteur and Branagh’s visual razzle-dazzle and confectionary sets manage to take a tale as wheezy as Cinderella and make it feel almost magical again and just how powerful love is.