There is one way that I know that a film is truly something special.
It occurs when I am sitting at my desk preparing to write my review. I visit the film's website. I check out the film's trailer and, if the film is truly something special, I am instantly immersed back into the world in which the film had taken me.
It doesn't happen often, but when it does it's an amazing experience.
This was very much the case with Kenneth Branagh's largely traditional retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale, a seemingly unnecessary film with countless versions preceding it yet, without hesitation, I proclaim Branagh's version to be one of the absolute best.
Cinderella follows the story of Ella (Lily James, Lady Rose from Downton Abbey), a young and very loved girl being raised by an often gone merchant (Ben Chaplin) and his genteel wife (Hayley Atwell). When his wife passes, the grieving merchant eventually marries Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who is neither kind nor genteel nor even remotely maternal. She brings into the "family" her two spoiled rotten daughters, Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), and, as we know, eventually Ella will be left under the care of the increasingly bitter Lady Tremaine. We also know, of course, that there will be a dashing Prince, Kit (Richard Madden, Robb Stark from Game of Thrones), and a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) and a story that is lovely and magical and beautiful and kind.
So many filmmakers would have approached this story through a contemporary lens or a cynical lens or a humorous lens or a downright hokey lens, and then they would have failed. What has Kenneth Branagh done? He has approached the Cinderella tale through a surprisingly straightforward and faithful lens, tweaking it ever so slightly into less a story of a dashing and rescuing prince and far more a story of a young and beautiful girl whose mother taught her to be brave and to always be kind and whose ability to hold onto these core values ultimately empowers her life in simple and wondrous and mysterious ways.
Penned by Chris Weitz, this Cinderella is almost achingly sincere and sweet enough that you may very well leave the theater with a cavity or two. Weitz beautifully captures the story's humane and otherworldly qualities, perfectly weaving them together into a story that is simple and straightforward yet constantly feels fresh and alive.
Cinderella is beautiful to behold, a film that captures both the beauty and the whimsy of this ultimately delicate story. While there are moments of CGI, they complement the story rather than dominate it. Weitz, too, has given the story a little extra emotional resonance including a far more substantial prince than we are used to and who is brought truly dashingly to life by Richard Madden, an almost impossibly handsome man seemingly even more handsome and yet richly human and humble as the Prince called Kit who is preparing to take over the throne from his father (Derek Jacobi). The two, father and son, share a scene that is so wonderfully realized and incredibly rare in such a Hollywood tale yet a scene that gives everything that follows an even deeper meaning.
Lily James is simply marvelous as Ella, believable both as servant and princess, a young woman whose beauty is always obvious yet whose wounds are also so believable that we understand how she loses her way. If there is justice, it will be a breakthrough film performance for James. It comes as no surprise to anyone that Cate Blanchett truly soars as the wicked stepmother, a woman whose almost cartoonish narcissism is fleshed out and given emotional resonance by the always amazing Blanchett. In a relatively brief appearance, Helena Bonham Carter is her usual extraordinary self.
The simple truth is that there is not a weak performance in the film.
One could say, perhaps, that the film's central themes of "Have courage, and be kind" are repeated far more than necessary, yet it seems an intentional artistic choice by Branagh to ultimately drive him the memories and spirit that guide Ella even when it seems all is lost. While adults may not need the reminders, it all felt strangely soothing and I have a feeling children may very well feel the same way.
With the dominance of CGI and 3-D imagery, it often feels like Hollywood has forgotten how to create a truly enchanting fairy tale. There are times I find myself mumbling to the screen "Oh please, just tell me the story." As shot by Haris Zambarloukos and designed by Dante Ferretti, Cinderella is a visual and storytelling treasure. While he utilizes CGI to complement the film's more whimsical scenes, director Kenneth Branagh has ultimately trusted the wonder and the magic of the Cinderella fairy tale and, in the end, has created one of the more memorable such fairy tales in recent years.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic