Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is, for the most part, a straightforward retelling of the fairy tale, and the Walt Disney Pictures imprimatur ensures that the filmmaker forgoes the more violent moments in the Brothers Grimm version of the story (no one cuts their toes off here in order to fit into Cinderella’s glass slipper; to see that, you’d have to turn to Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods). Which isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have its own distinct virtues. Dante Ferretti’s color production design and Sandy Powell’s wide-ranging costumes (the black-with-green-stripes design on wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine’s dress offers an expressive contrast with Cinderella’s initial plain pink dress) are so intoxicatingly colorful that every shot has the immersiveness of a dream. But it’s the emotional reality with which Branagh, screenwriter Chris Weitz, and his cast ground this Cinderella that makes it as affecting as it is.
Branagh fully understands the societal critique underlying the tale, and brings it out into the open: The world that surrounds Cinderella is one in which surface appearances matter more than inner beauty, class status is a kind of mental prison from which only a few are able to break free, and climbing up the social ladder is believed to be the only sure route toward happiness. Perhaps Weitz’s most noteworthy alteration, in that regard, lies in the way the script turns the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) into a parallel of Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), deviously scheming behind the scenes in a misguided belief in the rightness of the current order of things. This contrasts with the sunny idealism that Cinderella exudes, and that the Prince (Richard Madden) finds himself drawn to amid the superficial tradition-bound world he has known up to that point.
Most of all, though, this Cinderella resonates as an ideological battle between Cinderella’s (Lily James) natural optimism and Lady Tremaine’s (Cate Blanchett) viciously calculating pragmatism. While the former ultimately wins out, Branagh isn’t above occasionally giving the latter perspective its due. Even as Blanchett generally plays her character to the delicious black-hearted hilt, she does offer fleeting glimpses of the painful life experience that has shaped her appalling current behavior. And though the film sprinkles in those intermittent moments of bitter adult wisdom, Branagh, as with the film’s main character, never allows Cinderella to sink into heavy-spiritedness. A sense of play reigns over the proceedings, perhaps encapsulated most amusingly by Helena Bonham Carter’s Fairy Godmother, played with a kind of jokey, no-nonsense gleam in her eyes that nevertheless feels completely sincere rather than snarky. That just about sums up the film in a nutshell: It may not reinvent any wheels, but it’s been made with enough care and belief in its material that it manages to refresh our relationship to the iconic tale, reminding us of why its message, of kindness triumphing over evil, has endured for so long.
Berlinale runs from February 5—15.