Radiant ‘Cinderella’ doesn’t rely on special effects
‘Cinderella’ is a smashing success, something of a perfect storm of fresh-faced new talent, seasoned guidance, opulent visuals and a classic fairy tale.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh with a great feel for the real emotions at the heart of a fanciful story, the film does not put a sword in the title character’s hand and ask her to slay dragons. It is instead a fairly straightforward telling of the familiar tale, with a few little plot spins added for spice. The surprise isn’t in the story, it’s in how well the story is told.
A bit more time than usual is spent with the set-up. We meet young Ella living an idyllic life with her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin). After her mother’s death from an unspecified illness, Ella becomes even closer with her father.
Then the grown Ella (the radiant Lily James, from “Downton Abbey”) finds out her father wants to wed again. He marries a widow, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who brings along two empty-headed, taunting daughters Ella’s age, Drizella (Sophie McShera, also from “Abbey”) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger).
The Tremaine clan is contemptuous and cool to Ella until her father dies while away on a business trip. Then they tun downright cruel, turning her into an attic-dwelling servant in her own house and renaming her Cinderella.
Out for a horse ride one day, Cinderella meets a young man in the forest, and after a few quick exchanges, they part, never having shared names. He is, of course, Prince Charming (Richard Madden from “Game of Thrones”), who is immediately smitten, even though he’s supposed to be courting prospective royals to find an appropriate bride.
With his father (Derek Jacobi) ailing, the Prince agrees to host a ball where he can meet all potential marital prospects, as long as he can invite all the women in the kingdom to attend. He’s hoping to meet the girl he ran into in the woods.
But Lady Tremaine won’t let Cinderella go to the ball. So off she goes with her two daughters, hoping the Prince will fall for one of them. Cinderella is left in despair — until the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) her mother had always told her about suddenly appears to wave her magic wand.
Cue the computer-generated special effects, obviously. But much of what’s right about this “Cinderella” is it doesn’t really rely on those effects all that much, and with its lush costume and production design, it doesn’t need to. Following the inventive frick-and-frack outfits of Drizella and Anastasia alone is worth the price of a ticket, while Lady Tremaine’s regal outfits (nobody does regal better than Blanchett) are somehow both dazzling and dangerous looking.
Branagh’s use of the English countryside, the wondrous details he brings to the Prince’s ornate ball, the patience and sense of scope he displays in the elaborate dance sequence where the Prince and Cinderella meet — it all gives realistic root to the magical tale. True, it’s pretty cool when a lizard is transformed into a footman and a pumpkin into a golden carriage, but the transformations work because they are, indeed, special in contrast to the reality, not just part of a piling on of visual gimmicks.
The result is “Cinderella” feels real enough to be sincerely touching at the same time it’s visually inventive enough to be magical. We’ve all seen this story, true; but we haven’t seen it told this effectively.
Rated PG for mild thematic elements
Running time: 112 minutes