ASHES TO ASHES: Cinderella


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Warning: SPOILERS
cinderellaThere is one absolutely lovely and magical moment in the new live action, non-musical Disney version of the animated, fully musicalized Disney version of the classic Charles Perrault fairy tale Cinderella.
Our titular character, frustrated and defeated by the cruel treatment at the hands of her step-mother and step-sisters, takes to horse and rides off into a distant woods where she stops the Prince from hunting down a stag.
What’s wonderful about this scene is that the previously optimistic (and rather annoyingly Pollyanish at times) Cinderella is finally the person she really is, beaten down, sad, furious at the circumstances she has found herself in, while the Prince, in turn, is finally the person he isn’t: here he pretends to be a mere apprentice and not royalty.
Who’d have thought something this sophisticated, clever and witty would have come from a carefully fine-tuned and micromanaged to the nth degree movie from the Disney studios, but the screenwriter Chris Weitz (who has given us such fun bon bons as Antz and About a Boy) pulled off something of a coup in this particular scene.
Other than that, for my money, Cinderella is something of a mixed bag when it comes to success. I know it’s been socking it away at the box office, but I’m afraid that it only intermittently works for me.

 

I will say this, it’s certainly less white than many other attempts at this sort of thing (especially the more recent Into the Woods, which also includes the Cinderella story); minorities aren’t totally sent to the back of the bus. So it’s a step in the right direction, though I’m not sure that’s saying all that much still.

 

How you react to the film overall, though, will probably depend on how you feel about the dramatization of Cinderella’s through line, as well as Lilly James as our long suffering heroine. I found both to come up a bit short for my taste.

 

In contrast, the through line involving the Prince, or Kit as he is affectionately called, is much, much stronger and much, much more involving. Perhaps the most interesting success in this version is that, as the tale goes on, one doesn’t so much want Cinderella to end up in the arms of Kit for her sake as for his.

 

Kit’s father is dying and the King needs his son to marry for the good of the kingdom, and it needs to be royalty. Not only that, but the Grand Duke has already picked out who he thinks the boy should marry, the princess of a country that can be an advantageous alliance for Kit’s small kingdom (and for the Grand Duke personally)—and it’s a country that has a large army. If only the Grand Duke can manipulate the political intrigue with the cleverness of a Shakespearean character.

 

There is true warmth and emotional feeling between Kit and the King, much more so than between Cinderella and her father. And one does fear that the Prince may be coerced into making a terrible match.

 

At the same time, and as well as this works, the filmmakers don’t ultimately go all the way here as one might wish. Kit is never in any real danger, only in a fair amount of annoyance. When he wins, it’s with so little ramifications one wonders what all the brouhaha was about.

 

But in the end, it’s whenever Cinderella is more the center of the action that the story stalled for me.

 

The tale begins with a rather longish prolog summarizing, much of it through voice over, Cinderella’s childhood, the death of her mother and her father’s remarriage. Not enough time is really given to create a truly resonant set of relationships here. We’re told so much, rather than shown, that it really calls attention to itself.

 

And Cinderella’s story here doesn’t always make a lot of sense. Her step-mother resigns her to the attic and makes a servant of her as soon as her father leaves on a business trip. All I could think is what was going to happen when he gets back and discovers what his wife has done to someone he is so devoted to. Why the story doesn’t wait until after the father’s death seems a little odd to me.

 

In addition, Cinderella’s troubles are compounded by her step-mother not having any money, except that she does seem to have money at other times. It’s all rather vague and not that convincing.

 

And yes, I probably wouldn’t have thought about these issues if the movie was working for me, but I’m afraid it just wasn’t.

 

Even James, who is quite beautiful, felt a bit flat for me. That one scene in the woods with the Prince notwithstanding, I didn’t really feel there was that much there.

 

The best scenes here are actually with the step-sisters, who, this time round, are not made ugly, thank God, just given the characteristic of having ugly taste. Played by Sophie McShera (Daisy, the apprentice cook in Downton Abbey) and Holliday Grainger (she’s played Bonnie Parker and Lucrezia Borgia), they are given the most cutting of cutting dialog, lines that out snark Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. And they deliver them with a relaxed laser pointer timing.

 

The evil step-mother is played, as anyone who has been on-line or in a movie theater for the last couple of months knows, by Cate Blanchett and she’s excellent, of course. At the same time, the writing leads to a rather strange moment.

 

Near the climax, Blanchett is given this long monolog that explains why she is the awful person she is. Okay, fine. Fair enough. And it’s a nice defense up to a point.

 

But as a friend pointed out, only a couple of lines later, Cinderella asks, “Why are you so cruel” and you so want Blanchett to tell her, “But weren’t you listening? I just told you. Didn’t you get the script pages before we shot the scene?”

 

This is piggy backed on an equally odd scene in which Cinderella is terrified to come down to the Prince in her ashy clothes and dirty face for fear he won’t want her for who she is. But all I could think is: “But he knows who you are. In fact, he fell in love with you knowing who you were. Am I missing something here?” And it is one of the more anti-climactic endings I’ve seen in awhile.

 

The direction is by Kenneth Branagh and though I think he’s done some fine work in the past, I don’t think he does a lot here. He’s much better when it comes to the personal scenes such as Kit and his father, or that beautiful scene in the woods (it reminded me of the scene between Kiera Knightly and Branagh himself in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the best moment from that movie as well).

 

But for me, he really botches the ball scene and Cinderella’s entrance. It has nothing of the palpable emotion of Eliza Doolittle’s entrance in either My Fair Lady or Pygmalion. I always felt the camera was in the wrong place most of the time.

 

He isn’t helped in other scenes by what felt like well done, but not particularly imaginative CGI as when a pumpkin is turned into a carriage, some really annoying mice are turned into horses, a goose turned into a coachman, and lizards turned into footmen. It might have helped to have the complete song rather than the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham-Carter, who is also the narrator; she’s fine, but I’m not convinced she does anything that special with the character) only saying “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” at one point.

 

With Robb Stark (I mean, Richard Madden) as the intensely handsome Kit; Derek Jacobi, very empathetic as the King; Stellan Skarsgard unrecognizable as the Grand Duke; Nonso Anozie (Daxos of Game of Thrones) as the Captain; and Ben Chaplin as Cinderella’s father.

 

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