This review does not contain spoilers.
When her father unexpectedly passes away, young Ella finds herself at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and her daughters. Never one to give up hope, Ella’s fortunes begin to change after meeting a dashing stranger.
Going into the cinema, I wasn’t sure whether to expect a live action recreation of the Disney cartoon, or whether it would be something more akin to Ever After—which is one of my favourite fairy tale retellings. It turns out that Cinderella is something in between (with some nods to the Charles Perrault fairy tale) and it’s wonderful.
I’ve never really been fond of the Disney princesses who sit back and wait for a prince to swoop in and save them from their fate. They just feel kind of … empty to me. But this movie—and Lily James’s portrayal—give Cinderella a curious strength of character. I say curious because it’s not something immediately obvious, like having a sarcastic retort for every hurtful comment, or even standing up for herself when things have gone too far. Ella embodies the movie’s motif: be kind and have courage.
As much as it gets drummed into the audience throughout the film, that motif never loses its relevance. It seems like such a simple thing but you can see how difficult it is even for Ella to stick to it. In my opinion, it’s a much better message to younger viewers than ‘keep wishing and dreaming and maybe things will just fall into place’—which is basically what I took from Disney’s Cinderella as a child.
Richard Madden as Kit is every bit the charming prince. The chemistry between him and Lily James is palpable, and no wonder with Madden’s scene-stealing tight pants. I definitely enjoyed the twist on the usual events, with the prince openly adoring a commoner and pretending to be one himself. When Cinderella isn’t pretending to be a princess, it opens her relationship with the prince up to new levels of honest affection. Had Kit not turned out to be a prince, I strongly believe that Ella would have happily grown to love her apprentice friend.
Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger make for fabulously comedic stepsisters but Cate Blanchett soars as the stepmother. Though we come close, there is never a complete explanation for her motives. Blanchett’s responses make me think that even the character doesn’t know why she turns so willingly to cruelty: it’s just natural for her and she doesn’t know how to explain it even to herself.
This movie is right up there with Ever After for me as one of my favourite fairy tale retellings. I can finally relate to the characters; I even found myself reaching for tissues a couple of times because I was so engaged. The score is beautiful, the costumes are divine, and I couldn’t imagine better actors for these roles. Kenneth Branagh has served up something truly magical.