Film Review: Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella

Film Review: Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella

“A RAGGED servant girl is what you are and that’s what you’ll always be,” is the damning asseveration of the wicked Stepmother in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella.

Played with cruel panache (and undisguised mischief) by Cate Blanchett, the Stepmother is, of course, the antagonist of the pure-but-plucky Cinders, played by Lily James. In Branagh’s fabulous fairytale it’s the women who create the drama’s moral tension.

Given that Cinderella is a dream story it’s fitting that the film has a dream cast. While Lily James brings the traditional air of Downton Abbey to the piece, Richard Madden as Prince Charming brings the fantasy nuances from Game of Thrones (and wears a pair of groin-crushing britches).

Helena Bonham-Carter is the Fairy Godmother and there are roles for Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgard, Hayley Atwell and Rob Brydon.

But it’s weirdly characteristic of fairytales that the nasty might be more alluring than the nice. In keeping with this, it’s Cinderella’s step-family that brings spicy flavour to the movie.

Along with Blanchett the ghastly stepsisters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) add tawdry torment to Cinders’ world of woe.

It’s also characteristic of legendary stories that they assume a contemporary slant. While Blanchett swishes about like Marlene Dietrich crossed with Lady Gaga, there’s enough glitzy bitchiness spinning around the family hearth to match the Kardashians. “You needn’t call me Stepmother,” Cinderella is icily told, “Madam will do.”  

Cinderella-Cate-Blanchett-2[1] Cate Blanchett relishing the role of the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella

To make the movie of perhaps the most treasured of all fairytales, Branagh certainly had a fairytale production budget.

Disney haven’t pinched on the jewel-lined purse in recreating their celebrated animated feature from 1950. This is the first live-action film version of the Cinderella story, but the visual presentation mixes in vibrant CGI and airbrush animation.

Branagh’s vision of the Prince’s palace looks like the glorious, gaudy aesthetic of a Rajput Temple tinted in shiny sweet-wrapper colouring. One can almost taste the icing-sugar as Branagh’s sumptuous scenery takes on the effect of rich confectionary.

It’s all a fair ould step from Branagh’s difficult Belfast beginnings. Spending his early childhood in a struggling working-class household (his father was a carpenter), Branagh saw enough of sectarian hostility to want to escape.

Now aged 54, he still recalls that the family moved to England after the first so-called “peace wall” was erected at the end of their street. Later Branagh brought that biting experience to bear in Graham Reid’s iconic Billy Plays (1982-84).

Reid’s dramatic trilogy of life within an ordinary Protestant home illustrated how tight-knit families both protect and damage their members. These dramas were Branagh’s first successes and, notwithstanding all his other accomplishments, they’re still arguably his best.

Earlier this year Branagh premiered Cinderella in Belfast. He still refers to the place as home. Despite having joined the high table of knighted thespians, he retains an air of unstrained humility.

Not that Branagh’s movie is noticeably humble. Its lavish abundance offers up an eruption of grand set pieces and opulent action sequences. The fairytale’s familiar moments are rendered in impressive style, such as the mice enlarging into fine white horses to pull Cinderella’s carriage.

Unlike recent and more ironic fairytale films, like Maleficent or Into the Woods, this is aimed firmly at the children’s audience.

“Where there is kindness, there is goodness; and where there is goodness, there is magic,” is Cinders’ philosophy. 

Darkness is mostly banished and the whole screen is consistently sprinkled with twinkling stardust. Take the kids to see Cinderella and you’ll all have a ball. 

Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is released in cinemas across Britain and Ireland from Friday, March 27