Oh come on, surely everyone knows this story. Anyway, a perfunctory plot synopsis goes like this: born into a happy family, gracious, kind and all-round sweetheart Ella (Lily James) loses her mother (Hayley Atwell) tragically early and her father (Ben Chaplin) some years later. Left in the hands of her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and less-than-salubrious step-siblings Drisella (Sophie McShera, previously kitchen maid to co-star Lily James' posh totty on Downton Abbey) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), poor Ella is reduced to a long-suffering servant girl. Years of back-breaking toil earn her the mocking nickname of Cinderella but have no effect on her enduring, effervescent spirit. One day out riding alone Ella happens across a handsome Prince (Richard Madden, whose last romance on Game of Thrones did not work out so well). Smitten with the beguiling but mysterious girl, he invites royalty and regular folk alike to a grand ball in the hope of luring his unknown true love. The stepmother seizes the chance to snag a royal spouse for one of her dowdy daughters but cruelly stops Ella going to the ball. But Ella earns the magical intervention of her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter).
Charles Perrault's timeless fairytale is a story of passive endurance. Cinderella endures cruelty, suffering and toil with grace, good nature and patience until Prince Charming comes along to sweep her away to a just reward. While these elements remain problematic for generations of feminists their inherent simplistic appeal is exactly why this story has endured for centuries through various incarnations. It will likely do so for centuries to come. Most film adaptations put their own unique spin on Perrault's tale, be they revisionist (Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)), contemporary (A Cinderella Story (2004)) or musical fantasies like The Slipper and the Rose (1976) and Walt Disney's original 1950 animated film. Kenneth Branagh's live-action remake for the Disney studio strives for an archetypal take on the girly fantasy to end all girly fantasies, fusing together the spirits of the animated version (right down to the return of lovable fat little mouse Gus-Gus), British pantomime and also, to a degree, young adult fiction.
Written, surprisingly enough, by American Pie's Chris Weitz the script admittedly reaffirms traditional (some may argue: archaic) ideas of femininity. Ella's ailing mother imprints the message when she asks her daughter to be courageous and kind at all times and against all adversity. Yet if it is debatable whether empathy, self-sacrifice, kindness and endurance encapsulate the best of womanhood these are admirable qualities worth celebrating regardless of gender. Branagh's steady hand and the sumptuous production design of Dante Ferretti conjure a delightful fairytale ambience that will likely appeal to purists, children (who, it is worth noting, immediately recognized and embraced Lily James as Cinderella) and evidently connoisseurs of kitsch judging by John Waters' positive reaction. The film's self-conscious artifice evokes the original Disney design with frolicking CGI animals, lavish costumes (if you are a fan of colourful frocks it is a feast for the eyes) and lustrous colours with just a hint of sensuality. Seriously, Lily James' enraptured ecstasy during her showstopping transformation, not to mention all that sighing and heaving in the dance sequence, is downright steamy. As was apparent in Thor (2011), Branagh has an undervalued knack for comedy. His take on Cinderella has an ingratiating sly wit that gently ribs the plot without puncturing its sincerity. Alongside the humour Derek Jacobi adds more than a few poignant moments as the ailing King. Elsewhere Cate Blanchett counterbalances the treacle vamping it up 1940s-style aided by two barnstorming comedy turns from Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger each frankly light years away from ugly. The costume department have to work overtime to make them look frumpy.
Unlike the flawed though interesting Maleficent (2014) no-one gets upstaged by the scenery. Branagh's skill with actors yields pitch-perfect performances all around. Not least a radiant Lily James. Rather than simply go through the motions like many soppy, one-dimensional Cinderellas before, James invests her archetype with an infectious cheer, charm and moments of disarming, gut-wrenching emotion. The same is true for Richard Madden's likeable Prince although James also sparks really well off Helena Bonham Carter (a likely candidate for Cinderella twenty years ago) in their one big scene together and performs a rather lovely version of 'A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes' over the end credits. She's a talent to watch that girl. Would that the Disney studio had the courage to go the whole hog and make this a musical. Still it is interesting the studio released this not long after their earlier far more cynical, if muddled musical take on the story: Into the Woods (2014).