Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter
I am not really a fan of fairytales. To begin with, the entire concept of a Prince Charming coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress doesn't really sit well with our modern times and their values. The lets-take-it-in-our-hands Disney heroines of Frozen or Brave are what we are more in sync with, or even the revisionist Maleficent where Angelina Jolie gave a heart and a back story to the evil queen of The Sleeping Beauty.
But in the midst of such revisionist tales crammed full of pop culture reference lands the classic Cinderella, traditional to its core and embracing its fairytale origins. And you know what, this blast from the past is refreshingly fun. It may look schmaltzy in the beginning, but it gradually wins you over with its mix of fairytale, romance, some heart-pounding moments and the belief that the world is a better place with love, kindness and a little bit of magic.
Director Kenneth Branagh, who earned his stripes doing Shakespeare, sprinkles enough star dust on the film to make it enchanting for its target audience - young girls and their mothers. The men can tag along for some good, old fashioned nostalgia.
A quick run through the familiar and loved fairytale: Ella (Lily James of Downton Abbey) is the darling daughter of a trader and his wife who believes in magic and love. Then, one day, her mother dies of the disease most Disney parents suffer from - just keeling over without losing their youth and good looks. They just get enough time in-between to tell their beloved child a key life lesson.
Helena Bonham Carter's campy fairy godmother is one of the highlights of the film.
In the case of Ella's mother, it is, "Never lose courage and be kind." Young Ella grows believing and practicing this maxim. The father, meanwhile, marries again. Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) arrives as the evil stepmother with two moronic, ugly daughters in tow, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera, Downton Abbey again).
The father dies on a business trip abroad and the evil stepmother reduces Ella to a scullery maid who has to live in the attic (though we must say this particular attic is no place of misery). She is also viciously renamed Cinderella by the trio.
And then, one day, she meets the Prince (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones) deep inside the forest. While she is just working off her rage on a steed, he and his men are in hot pursuit of a stag. She convinces him to let the stag go and the prince, who introduces himself as an apprentice working at the palace, loses his heart to her.
This prince has troubles of his own. His father (Derek Jacobi) and a scheming grand duke (Stellan Skarsgard) want him to marry a princess to strengthen the kingdom but the prince's heart is with Cinderella.
A ball follows to which all maidens in the kingdom are invited, where the prince will choose his bride. Cue the refusal of Tremaine to take Cinderella to the ball and the entry of the fairy godmother. Love follows as does the curious case of glass slipper which will only fit Cinderella.
Shot in the live action format, the film is beautiful and resplendent with colours. Some of the scenes - especially Cinderella's transformation into a Princess with a pumpkin coach and repetile footmen -- are nothing short of magic. Don't miss the beautiful gown or the epic splendour of the ball either.
Cinderella's gown in the film reflects 50 shades of blue.
James plays Cinderella as someone who is inherently good and believes in kindness. She has a voice of her own and is not afraid to use it. She does not meet the Prince at the ball for the first time but in a forest where he can see her for the woman she is, without any magic at play.
Carter as the campy, slightly off-kilter fairy godmother is a refreshing change from the creature of magic we expect. The piece de resistance is, of course, Blanchett as the evil stepmother. A woman who could be manipulative and vicious but mostly has her reasons. She has loved and lost and is now looking at destitution, and she is damned if she will go down without a fight.
Full marks to Branagh for giving so many layers to the known tale and making us look at it as so much more than just a bedtime story.