When 10-year-old Ella (Eloise Webb) sits on her mother’s (Hayley Atwell) deathbed, she gets a bit of advice about how to live life: “Have courage, and be kind.” This adage is repeated ad nauseam throughout Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, and yet there’s a noticeable absence of risk in Chris Weitz’s script as well as in the overall way that Branagh depicts the classic story. The gowns are vibrant in color and the set design is teeming with detail, but the director, working with editor Martin Walsh, cuts the film to emphasize the story’s familiar plot points, rather than highlight any instances of personal visual artistry.
It’s a pity, as Branagh offers a handful of moving, thoughtful moments of symbolism and graceful expressionism. Years after her mother’s death, Ella (now played by Lily James) learns of her father’s (Ben Chaplin) death during a business trip, and is quickly isolated by her stepmother (Cate Blanchett), along with Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), the stepsisters who nickname her Cinderella. When she’s notified of the passing, Branagh frames her standing against an open doorway clutching a tree branch, a sentimental gift from her father. Branagh lights the scene with James stuck between the gray, dimming glow of the outer world and the dark chamber lighting of the home now ruled over by her stepmother. As Cinderella stares out, shaking with grief, James’s eyes convey a devastating reality: Whatever the impending horror of her life under the thumb of her stepfamily, the home they inhabit also contains memories of her loving family that the world at large very simply cannot. It’s a rare flash of beauty that doesn’t feel cut down to cursory length in the name of narrative efficiency.
The director proves more short-sighted during a lively choreographed sparring sequence between the prince (Richard Madden) and his captain (Nonso Anozie). The prince’s practice room is overrun with soldiers dueling, and Branagh shoots it as a gorgeous, rushing swirl of action, but it’s utilized only to set the scene for a monotonous discussion of the prince’s first meeting with Cinderella. The prince’s impending ascension to the throne is the other topic of conversation, one that stirs up the inevitable pressure for him to marry before his father (Derek Jacobi) passes on. Despite the ubiquitous specter of death that hangs over the story, Branagh brings out a modicum of buoyant humor out of all the limp romance and drama, helped largely by Blanchett’s peerless delivery, McShera and Grainger’s kinetic exchanges, and a small cameo by Rob Brydon as a clumsy portrait artist. Sadly, this welcome bid at comedy is only intermittently indulged throughout this otherwise dull, straightforward retelling of the beloved animated version of the story.
Weitz’s screenplay is heavy on needless exposition, as well as constant reiteration of plot points in the dialogue, both of which make nearly every scene feel overworked. It makes the script-centric cutting all the more noticeable, never more so than in the scene between Cinderella and her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). The entire transformation sequence is rushed through aggressively, to the point that Carter’s character is barely memorable. The film itself ultimately comes off like a highly efficient pageant of familiar but eye-catching wardrobes and magnificently nuanced interiors, with the plot boiling down concepts of identity, class, femininity, and fate into a stiff, oversimplified story of good versus evil.
Only Blanchett’s character registers genuine complexity, conjuring years of heartbreak, violent jealousy, and calcified empathy with one upward twitch of the eyebrow and lip. She’s the only character that offers a convincing counterpoint to the overtly romanticized nostalgia that typifies Weitz’s script. In a telling scene, Branagh juxtaposes Cinderella trying on her mother’s simple pink dress with the hideous modern duds being sported by her hellion stepsisters, who rip her dress to tatters before the royal gala. Cinderella does, of course, finally stand up to her stepfamily, but only after any and all traces of real danger have been excised from such rebellion. And Branagh does brandish a certain visual audacity and refinement, but when said inspiration doesn’t get in the way of reiterating the turns of a story that everyone older than three likely knows by heart.