Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2015

Cinderella

There and back again

Live-action 'Cinderella' is a lovely but pointless, bloodless, ambition-less rehash of the Disney fairy tale

Cinderella
Walt Disney Studios
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Chris Weitz
Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Derek Jacobi, Nonso Anozie, Ben Chaplin, Stellan Skarsgård and Helena Bonham Carter
Rated PG / 1 hour, 45 minutes
March 13, 2015
(out of four)

Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella is a movie without an ounce of creative ambition. It is a movie made for people who treasure familiarity over ingenuity. It is a movie made by people who prefer safety over innovation. It is a movie whose entire existence is a thundering anthem to repetition, uniformity, unoriginality and risk-aversion. It is a 105-minute argument against artistic imagination.

There are much worse movies out there, but few worse cinematic crimes than being as aggressively uninteresting as Cinderella is. I've rarely seen such a passionate commitment to mediocrity. It is designed not just to give viewers what they expect, but to give them only what they expect. I imagine those who will most enthusiastically relish this adaptation are the same people who prefer the first two Harry Potter movies because they're more faithful to the books, or who just love driving through neighborhoods where every house looks exactly the same.

The counterargument here is, hey, there's nothing wrong with a traditional, familiar story told well. And I half-agree with that. There isn't anything ostensibly wrong with faithfully retelling a story and doing a nice job of it. But there's a big difference between doing that, and making a movie without purpose, and Cinderella is most definitely a movie without a purpose. It is abjectly terrified of having a voice of its own. Disney's entire idea behind the project seems to have been, "Let's do the exact same thing we already did, but with real people this time!"

But that, on its own, is no reason to make a movie. And for that matter, there is virtually no reason to watch this version of the movie instead of the studio's original animated feature. In fact, the changes Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz do make are almost always for the worse. Like the decision to have extra scenes with the boring prince and his boring royal advisors. Or the absence of music (the best thing about the 1950 version) - because, y'know, we wouldn't want the film to be fun or anything.

Turns out, when you strip away the songs and the animation, you realize the story that remains is not just lightweight, but downright insipid. That's right, the filmmakers are so intent on being faithful to the story we all know that they accidentally expose the weaknesses of the story itself. While watching it I realized that if any Disney fairy tale actually needed a reinterpretation, it was probably this one. The built-in unreality of the animated version masked a lot of flaws that the live-action replication lays bare. Suddenly more attention is drawn to how idiotic the whole glass-slipper sequence is, and how little sense it makes unless the prince is a face-blind foot fetishist ... which would make for a whole different movie ... which would probably be directed by Quentin Tarantino. But, my apologies, I digress.

There's also the matter of Cinderella herself. In another example of what a difference a change in medium can make (even if pains are taken to keep everything else the same), here she no longer comes across as a victim so much as a pushover, despite Lily James' genuinely spirited and charming performance. During the film's preamble we get to know Ella and her loving parents (played by Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell); on her ailing mother's deathbed, she tells her daughter to always have courage and show kindness to others. Years later, she has taken the second part to heart, but not so much the first.

Nobility in the face of hardship, sure. Strength of character? Absolutely. But courage? Hardly. In fact, this is actually why Cate Blanchett, as the Evil Stepmother, is actually under-used. As it stands, Ella acquiesces to her de facto slavery almost instantly, and without much prodding from her nasty new family. If the film spent more time exploring the abusive relationship between her and her stepmother - showed us how she manipulates her into subservience, or showed a continuing pattern of cruelty and abuse - then perhaps Cinderella as a protagonist wouldn't seem so weak. In an era when popular cinema is moving more toward strong female heroines (The Hunger Games, Frozen, Edge of Tomorrow, Divergent, Brave, or pretty much any sci-fi character played by Zoe Saldana or Scarlett Johansson), Cinderella herself seems oddly retrograde.

Every time she tries to act like an equal member of the family (sitting at the breakfast table with everyone else; attempting to tag along to the royal ball), Stepmother simply makes a rude comment and Cinderella timidly flutters away. Aside from the threat of another harsh rebuke, there is literally nothing stopping her from just leaving, or otherwise standing up for herself. The more you consider the story and all of its implications, the less it stands up to scrutiny - but Branagh is counting on audiences to simply be swept up in the nostalgia of a tale whose details we've long since taken for granted.

I'm not sure Ella's future husband is much better. The film casts Robb Stark as Prince Charming and he certainly looks and acts the part. His character gets to be Prince Charming because he looks like a Prince Charming. But it seems there's a reason no one ever referred to him as Prince Personality or Prince Conversation.

The first of the film's two standout aspects is, of course, Blanchett - not just the acting itself, but the way Branagh and Haris Zambarloukos photograph her. She is visualized as a noir villain - surrounded by shadows, lurking around corners, her face sometimes obscured by a hat or funeral lace. Her performance follows suit - she is cunning, droll, charmingly ruthless and endlessly amused by herself, and has a sinister laugh that sounds like no other sinister laugh.

And then there's the other standout feature - Sandy Powell's extraordinary costume work. The way she identifies and personifies characters by color scheme is one of the few areas in which the film escapes its persistent sense of familiarity. Blanchett's Stepmother is primarily dressed in gaudy greens, often complemented by black and gold. The stepsisters, Anastasia and Drisella, are shown early on side-by-side in polkadot dresses, looking very much like proxies for Tweedledee and Tweedledum. And the ball itself, far from being the blend of monotonous colors that similar movie scenes so often are, is a miracle of color coordination - the dresses primarily made up of slightly muted spring tones (which allows Cinderella's bright blue gown to stand out even more).

And that's the thing. Cinderella is a nice-looking, well-acted movie. There's such a high level of technical proficiency here that the bare minimum was always going to be watchable competence. Unfortunately, big picture-wise, the filmmakers didn't aim much higher than the bare minimum. It's almost perfect that Branagh is the film's director, because he has previously proven what great work he can do while being utterly faithful to the source - most notably his four-hour, 70mm-shot 1996 epic version of Hamlet. Yes, of course, the material he had to work with in that case was stronger, I grant you that. But even so, there's a palpable personal vision to his Hamlet that is completely absent here. In Cinderella he and Disney have made a movie with the worst of impulses - reassure rather than challenge, repeat rather than interpret, duplicate rather than invent. If Kenneth Branagh had a magic wand and found himself a pumpkin, he'd just turn it into another pumpkin.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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