Like so many other girls, I grew up loving the story of Cinderella. It was one of my favourite stories as a child and would read it, or ask my parents to read it to me, as many times as I could. I also loved Disney’s 1950 animated version, which is definitely a staple film in my video collection. Call me a hopeless romantic all you want, but I find perfect happy endings very satisfying, especially in fairy tales. So when Disney announced that they were going to produce a live action film for the 21st century audience, it became one of my most anticipated films of the 2015, and as a fan of this story and family films in general, Cinderella exceeded every expectation I could possibly have. It’s a great film in almost every respect, not only as a contemporary reinterpretation of the classic fairy tale but as homage to the original animated film. There were some parts that I couldn’t help but become a little teary eyed. I know, I know. I’m such a girl.
Despite the fact that the story of Cinderella has some dated aspects regarding its narrative – most notably the whole idea that a young woman is kept in a house obeying orders diligently while waiting for a man to come and save her – the most important message which is to “always have courage and to be kind.” Ella, as the title character is called in the film (played by Lily James) is told this as a child by her mother (Haylee Atwell) before she suddenly passes away from a terrible illness. Then Ella’s father remarries to a widow, hoping to have a big family and never ending happiness. While his intensions are pure, Ella’s new stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchette) is controlling, manipulative, and cruel in every sense of the word. The film introduces her almost as a caricature of these traits, dressed in black lace veil and walking her cat on a leash. The interesting aspect in this Cinderella is that Lady Tremaine’s jealousy and hatred towards Ella stems from how much Ella is adored by her father because of how kind and good hearted she is, traits her mother possessed so well. Even when Ella makes a polite attempt to meet her new step mother, Lady Tremaine replies in a devilish way, “No need to call me Step Mother. Madame will do.”
Director Kenneth Branagh has always been fascinated with highlighting character traits as strengths. We’ve seen it in his Shakespeare adaptations like Much Ado About Nothing and even in his more mainstream projects like Thor. With Cinderella, Branagh is adamant on portraying Ella’s kindness and bravery as her strength. She isn’t afraid to stand up for herself to Lady Tremaine and her stepsisters who seem to only care about two things in life: making Ella miserable and marrying a prince for his wealth. Their dreadful personalities are matched only by their dreadful attire – contrasting mixes of pink and yellow dresses. Ella isn’t a submissive character by any means; she only puts up with these people out of love for her father.
Ella maintains an ability to stand strong while doing chores and putting up with emotional and at times physical abuse from her step family. But it is constantly put to the test. Her weakest point comes early on in the film when she gets word that he is dying on a business trip. As the messenger gives them this news, Lady Tremaine wonders how they will be taken care of now and walks away. Lady Tremaine forces Ella to be their servant. And because of her good attitude she never really comes off as a servant even though she is hurting deeply. The family’s malicious treatment of her continues. In one particularly cruel scene, Ella falls asleep from exhaustion by the fire place she is cleaning. She wakes up the next morning covered in ashes, which then prompts her step sisters to tease her, calling her “Cinder” Ella. Despite being treated so poorly by her step mother and step sisters, the mice and animals seem to lover her. Ella has always had a special way of listening and caring for them. She makes them a dinner using only a tea cup as the table and turns lace into a place mat. These are astonishingly adorable scenes that serve to help the audience identify with Ella as a person.
One day Ella rides her horse into the woods, and ends up meeting Kit better known as Prince Charming (played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden). He is tall and as handsome as ever with deep blue eyes but of course Kit doesn’t make it known to Ella that he is a Prince. Kit is on a hunting expedition when he meets Ella and her immediate pleas that he and his royal hunters not hurt a poor steed is what takes him aback and makes him fall in love with her. The beautiful thing about this scene is that Kit is not falling for her Ella because she is beautiful. He is falling for her because he sees the kind of person she is, a kind, caring woman who will stand up to authority.
Likewise, Kit has issues with his parents, particularly in the sense that he wants to be able to choose who he can marry. The King (Derek Jacobi) wants the Palace and the land’s people to be taken care of, which is why he wants his son to marry someone from a noble and respectable birthright. This creates a rich emotional layer that certainly ads to the story by portraying Kit as much more than a stereotypical Prince Charming. His sense of humour, genuine willingness to do good, and his own personal sadness makes him easy to identify with. It makes us want to root for both Ella and Kit to meet when the King decides to throw a ball in hopes that Kit will find his future queen.
The rest of the film is faithful to the fairy tale we’ve all known for generations. Helen Bonham Carter plays the Fairy Godmother, a perfect casting choice. Even if you know the original tale – not the original Brother’s Grimm tale, but the Disney adaptation of it, you will still be enthralled at how the film’s third act is executed. The costumes are lavish, the acting is wonderful, and the conclusion is more than satisfying.
The words that Ella was told by her mother echo throughout the film and become its central themes. By the time the credits role, you will be smiling. Cinderella is an exceptionally strong film that will open your heart. It encourages you to believe in yourself and what you stand for. With the help of Branagh and a cast of exceptionally gifted actors, Disney has reinforced Cinderella as a heroine everyone can look up to and the idea that courage and kindness can make a positive difference in spite of the many obstacles being thrown in the way.