The story of Cinderella has been done so many times, it is nearly impossible to improve upon it. However, never has the story looked so gorgeous nor appeared so heart-warming that Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella just may be the version to end all Cinderellas.
Cinderella opens with a glance at Ella’s everyday home life with her loving parents. Seeing Ella’s life packs an even greater emotional punch when Ella’s mother and, later, father pass away. The last advice from Ella’s dying mother (played by Agent Carter herself, Haley Atwell) presents the running theme throughout the movie: “Have courage, and be kind.” The resolve to always be kind is challenged as Ella (Downton Abbey’s Lily James) struggles to welcome her new stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). Ultimately, it is Ella’s kind heart, instead of purely good looks, which leads a certain prince (Game of Thrones’s Richard Madden) to fall in love with her. From the chance meeting between Ella and the prince in the forest, the story slowly evolves into two young people coming into their own, and that is where the 21st century spin comes into play.
Lily James gets the big break she deserves, embodying Ella with all of the grace and charm one could expect of Cinderella with a satisfying balance of the down-to-earth realist and the dewy-eyed dreamer. James also makes Cinderella real and relatable as she struggles to be kind through her sorrows and pain. Richard Madden is all smiles and stiffness as Prince Kit; he is not the strongest counterpart to James’s Cinderella, but he shines in his scenes with the King (magnificently played by Derek Jacobi). Cate Blanchet can do no wrong, and her portrayal as the archetypical stepmother is deliciously devilish and melodramatic with a coldness to freeze over hell itself. Helena Bonham-Carter makes the most of her brief screen time as the fairy godmother; she clearly has fun with the role, and we cannot help but have fun along with her.
Branagh brings his Shakespearen sensibilities to the film, leaving no stone unturned and an astonishingly acute eye to detail. Screenwriter Chris Weitz manages to add a few, though somewhat minor, twists and surprises into the story, and his dialogue is laced with all the humor and charm of Disney’s greatest films.
Aside from strong performances, Cinderella offers breathtaking visuals. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos never misses the chance to fill the screen with lush landscapes and vernal scenery. Dante Ferretti’s production design is simply stunning, from the dream mansion of Ella’s family to the grandiose palace—and the palace garden is utterly delightful. Sandy Powell’s ahistorical costumes are a wonder to behold; she draws inspiration from the eighteenth century, Victorian era, and 1940s, then blends them together with flamboyant patterns and vivid colors to create a truly unique look.
All of these elements come together to seamlessly create the ball scene, which is possibly the most magical cinematic moment since Elsa built her ice castle. The ballroom is beautifully lit and contains more color than Crayola ever dreamed of. Tony-winner Rob Ashford completes the picture with alluring choreography.
There are also plenty of CG effects to satisfy modern moviegoers, all of which are dazzling to behold. Helena Bonham-Carter’s transformation from beggar woman to fairy godmother is perfectly enchanting. And let’s not forget Cinderella’s iconic dress transformation—a scene which does Walt Disney’s favorite bit of animation justice—complete with fairy dust and butterflies.
All in all, Cinderella is not only the perfect family film, but it is also the perfect feel-good film. This version is unlikely to convert any Disney naysayer, but it offers a gloriously nostalgic version of a familiar story filled with beautiful contemporary film-making.