While Kenneth Branagh has been rightly praised for his oft-incredible work interpreting the plays of Shakespeare for the cinema, in between his brave adaptations of Hamlet and Henry V have been interesting genre exercises like the tense film noir homage Dead Again and very British comedies (Peter’s Friends, In The Bleak Midwinter).
Even with those stylistic variants on his resume, the recent turn his career has taken must have been a surprise to even his most devoted fans. Somehow he got tapped by Marvel Studios to take on the first film in their Thor franchise, to which he gave a workmanlike spin to considering all the green screen nonsense he had to contend with. His next feature, the Tom Clancy prequel Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, felt more in his wheelhouse. The modern spy thriller gave Branagh a chance to prove his mettle at staging a gritty and energetic action sequence.
Now we find the 54-year-old knight bachelor again in the employ of Disney, helping that company continue its work recycling their best-known properties for a new generation. In a way, it’s a bit of a gift to the director. Everyone knows a happy ending is forthcoming; all he needs to do is get the audience to that point comfortably and with as much visual flair as he can muster.
Luckily, Branagh has an incredible eye — one need only look to the opulent visions that he conjured up in Hamlet to see so — which he brings to bear in marvelous fashion here, with the help of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukous. Even in Cinderella’s darkest hours on screen, the sets are filled with rich details and an delectable looking colors. And the biggest sequences in the movie, particularly the grand ball where a magically anointed Cinderella wows everyone in her midst, is a dazzle of moving bodies, flowing gowns, and infectious joy.
As for the very familiar tale, it gets padded out a bit by screenwriter Chris Weitz (the former American Pie co-director who helped write Disney’s still-monstrous hit Frozen). We see young Ella in her happiest days with her doting parents, and we get every step that leads her to a kind of indentured servitude as she waits on her stepmother and stepsisters. Like Poppy Cross in Happy-Go-Lucky or Kimmy Schmidt of the new Netflix series, she tries to see the best in every situation and be kind even as she’s being dismissed out of hand.
One of Branagh’s other great skills is knowing how to cast a film, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. His Cinderella, Downton Abbey actor Lily James, fits as perfectly as a glass slipper, shining out of the soot and tatters of her character with a beaming smile and a graceful physicality. She almost floats through the film. And in a possible bit of stunt casting, he gave the Prince Charming role to Richard Madden, that strong-jawed gent best known as the glowering Robb Stark in Game of Thrones. He does a fine job living up to his character’s name, and giving Ella a vision to moon over while she toils in the kitchen.
But, of course, the film is stolen away from everyone else in it (including Branagh go-to Derek Jacobi as the King of the unnamed realm) by Cate Blanchett. Her turn as Lady Tremaine, the wicked stepmother, is a tour-de-force. She angles her way through every scene like Norma Desmond preparing for her close-up or Baby Jane Hudson ready to shove her young charge down the first flight of stairs she can find. Even more impressive is that, through it all, you manage to empathize with her. Her brutish ways are rooted in a deep, deep sadness that flickers around her eyes.
Not even the grotesquerie that was watching real life animals get CGI-ed into human hybrid form by a mincing Fairy Godmother could detract from the charm of this new Cinderella. Branagh did not mess with the source material, instead retelling it in as grand and humanistic a manner as he could. The trope of a special person battered down, then plucked out of the mire and thrust into a dreamworld is still there, but now, there’s a greater emphasis is on facing your fate with as much dignity and kindness as you can.