Berlin: Kenneth Branagh Says 'Cinderella' is 'Not About a Man Rescuing a Woman' (Q&A)

Kenneth Branagh
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The multihyphenate discusses his feminist take on Cinderella, why he loves tackling the classics and where you’re likely to find him in Berlin (hint: he likes museums).

Cinderella’s rags-to-riches fairy tale is not the sort of project many might expect to be helmed by someone with the more Shakespearean skill set of Kenneth Branagh, recently seen flitting between Norse gods (Thor), Chris Pine-fronted Tom Clancy actioners (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Swedish TV dramas (Wallander). But 64 years after Walt Disney’s animated version of the tale won the Berlinale’s very first audience award in 1951, Branagh, 54, is about to unveil the world premiere of his live-action retelling, with Downton Abbey’s Lily James in the title role and Cate Blanchett doing her best wicked stepmother.

THR caught up with the five-time Oscar-nominated actor-director, who lives with his film art director wife just outside London, to find out how a filmmaker noted more for his HenryV and Hamlet has taken on Cinderella and her ugly stepsisters.

Was making Cinderella something of a departure for you?

The fairy tale element was a surprise to me in that, although I’ve read them and enjoyed them, I didn’t ever think this was a subject I was likely to make a film about. But when you go back to the original source material, you become aware of how all-pervasive this Cinderella myth is. How many times do you read about “the Cinderella story,” the story of the underdog, the story of the ordinary human being, often subjected to cruelty and ignorance and neglect, who somehow triumphs?

How much did you deviate from the original Disney cartoon?

The animation actually took a number of liberties with the original story, which of course has been told and retold across every type of culture, with different names and even different types of cruelty. There are some in which the stepsisters cut their toes off in order to force their feet into the slipper. What we put front and center was a level of reality and psychological truth in the performances that would be surprising in the context of a fairy tale.

Did you feel much pressure when dealing with one of Disney’s prized characters?

Anybody who goes into the Disney world and takes on one of these live-action versions of an animated classic is always up against that kind of ancestry. But my entire filmmaking career and indeed my entire career has been in and around classics. Probably 90 percent of the stuff I make has inevitably been done before. … Whether it’s playing Hamlet, which has been on the go for 400 years, or pieces from the cinematic world that also have been essayed before, I feel released by that. What I think it confirms when people come back to the stories again is not that they’re tired, but that the themes and the stories and the character are ageless, and that they have a different kind of resonance for each passing generation.

Have you tried to modernize Cinderella for the current generation?

The first time we meet the grown-up Cinderella, she’s reading a book; she isn’t just scrubbing the steps. She’s already intellectually stimulated. And she makes a decision to try and understand the cruelty and the ignorance of her stepmother and stepsisters. We see a strength of character that is sort of a form of non­violent resistance. And she meets the prince way ahead of the ball, before she decides to fall for him. They get to know each other and the seeds of a romance are sewn in terms of equality. It’s not about a man rescuing a woman.

Following this dalliance with Disney’s fairy-tale side, would you be keen to venture back to its Marvel stable?

I’m pleased to say that I continue to have good relationships with all my Marvel family. It’s a people game the movie game, and although these films are big articulated lorries, they still have to be driven by real people. I fondly remember good times working on Thor. So you always look to repeat that kind of thing, and if it happened again, I’d be delighted.

What do you like to do in Berlin?

I’m a great museum and gallery guy, so I will steal time to do that and then, when it gets freezing, I’ll be very excited to get inside, get something very nice to drink and have a passionate debate about movies with my fellows.

You’ve recently been filming the last season of the BBC’s Wallander. Are you sad to say goodbye to your title character?

With this last film, we will have filmed all of the novels and two short stories, so it’s had a natural conclusion. There’s some sadness, but I was talking to [author] Henning Mankell and he was tremendously unsentimental about the end of Wallander. He gives it a finish as only he could, one that is both perfectly in the spirit of what he’s done before but also a dark, bracing Swedish ending.

Following Charlie Hebdo and The Interview, do you think the entertainment industry should hold back when it comes to potentially controversial material or go at it harder?

I think what you’re always looking for as artists is to be honest, and to continue to be honestly driven by that which you are passionately engaged with. It should need not be forced. One of the reasons I work in the classics is that all sorts of issues which are universal and timeless can be addressed in that way, and I think all artists have to find their way to it. Some wish to be more directly provocative. But they need to do so honestly and not from a position of either fear or desire to react in some abnormal or extreme way. “To thine own self be true” is what Shakespeare has us hear in Hamlet, and as artists, that’s what you’ve got to do. 

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