'Cinderella': Berlin Review

Quite a ball

Kenneth Branagh directs Disney's new live-action take on the timeless fairy tale, starring Lily James in the title role and Cate Blanchett as her cruel stepmother.

The color, vibrancy and unabashedly romantic heart explode off the screen in Cinderella. Directed by Kenneth Branagh with obvious affection for the 1950 Disney animated classic, the studio's opulent update is enhanced by sumptuous physical craftsmanship as well as the limitless possibilities of what CG technology can achieve. Screenwriter Chris Weitz embraces both the magic and the humanity of the classic fairy tale. He underlines the virtues of kindness and courage in a heroine right out of the pages of a traditional storybook, who gradually reveals the qualities of a self-possessed modern girl.

Girls, of course, will be the core constituency for this enchanting retelling. But anyone nostalgic for childhood dreams of transformation will find something to enjoy in an uplifting movie that invests warm sentiment in universal themes of loss and resilience, experience and maturity.

Lily James, the peaches-and-cream beauty best known as Lady Rose on Downton Abbey, plays the title character with unaffected sweetness. But Ella is first seen as a 10-year-old (Eloise Webb), and in Disney's trademark orphan-maker formula, she loses her beloved mother (Hayley Atwell) in the opening minutes. While she never forgets her, Ella recovers enough to grow up happily with her adoring merchant father (Ben Chaplin). But no sooner has he installed his haughty new wife, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), and her gauche daughters, Drisella (Sophie McShera, another Downton recruit) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), in the mansion, than dad ups and dies while on a business trip.

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That's an ample share of tragedy for any protagonist to absorb in the first 20 minutes, and anyone who doesn't know the raw deal Ella suffers thereafter either is still in diapers or living under a rock. Weitz freshens the familiar tale with small but significant tweaks, though mostly sticks to a template that combines the previous Disney iteration with Charles Perrault's 1697 version.

One change is that Ella first encounters her prince (Richard Madden) before the ball, while out riding in the woods after her new family has reduced her to servitude, derisively nicknaming her Cinderella. She shares her kindness credo, persuading the handsome stranger to spare the life of the magnificent stag he and his party are hunting; he conceals his royal identity as they circle one another on horseback.

This puts them on equal footing as the seeds of intoxicating romance are sewn. And even as it evolves — with the standard steps of resplendent transformation, return to stinging reality and glass slipper deliverance — the film defines their love not as an act of rescue but of two people accepting each other for who they are. That spin has been around at least since Pretty Woman, but Weitz uses a gentle touch to blend the contemporary attitudes into the old-world mix. He contrasts the true union of Cinderella and the prince with cynical examples of marrying for political, social or economic advantage, as pursued by the royal court's self-serving Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) or the heroine's scheming stepmother.

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Cinderella addresses the character by that term during a moment of sorrow, and Blanchett's feline malevolence is priceless as she tells her that such formality isn't necessary. "Madam will do," she says with an icy smile. Looking the very picture of soignée 1940s-style chic in Sandy Powell's extraordinary costumes, Blanchett reinvigorates the textbook villainess both with her delicious cruelty and her gnawing resentment. "Love is never free," she says bitterly as she contemplates her own narrowed choices and exposes her ruthlessness.

Blanchett pulls off a superb balancing act, making the stepmother archly amusing with her world-weary imperiousness, but also giving her a tang of desperation and tiny hints of a less refined woman beneath all the manufactured poise. While her mission is to secure her daughters' future along with her own, her barely disguised disdain for those idiotic brats lends additional underlying pathos to her malice.

If there’s a nagging oversight in Weitz's screenplay it's the failure to justify how a man as sensitive as Ella's father would open himself up to such a patently venal new mate, with her preening vanity and extravagant flamboyance. But hey, it's a fairy tale, right?

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The tyrannical trio's degradation of Cinderella into an object of ridicule and a thankless drudge comes as a gradual progression from snark to bullying to outright abuse. And without belaboring any moral lessons, the film makes the point that Madam and her two simpering fools are ultimately worse off, having never known an example of goodness. The theme of children emulating their parents while navigating their own path between right and wrong emerges with delicacy, both through Ella's real family in the early scenes, and in a tender deathbed exchange between the benevolent King (Derek Jacobi) and his son, which is one of the film's most affecting moments.

Branagh at times forces the humor with a heavy pantomime hand, getting slapsticky with Rob Brydon as the royal portrait artist, or allowing his old pal Helena Bonham Carter to turn the Fairy Godmother into a campy nutter. And the stepsisters' oafish comic antics can wear a bit thin. But the playfulness generally pays off, particularly in the quaint, quintessentially Disney touches, such as the extended family of mice that Cinderella dotes on, along with assorted other critters that become raw material for the Fairy Godmother's wand when it's time to hit the ball.

In perhaps the most obvious sign of Disney addressing the requirements of a 21st century audience, this is a multiethnic kingdom where the prince's senior advisor and most trusted friend (Nonso Anozie) is black, and the princesses trotted out as potential brides are African, Asian and Latin, along with vanilla Northern European. However, contemporary notes in the dialogue are kept mostly to a minimum. ("I hate myself in portraits, don't you?" groans the prince.) Unlike such winking fairy tale overhauls as Ella Enchanted or Mirror Mirror, this one remains fundamentally traditional.

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CG work — whether it's the digitally rendered animals and their magical transformation, dancing butterflies over a field of wildflowers, or the beautiful coastal kingdom, with galleons arriving for the ball — is first-rate. Even at its most elaborate, as in an accelerated race against the clock, when midnight strikes and Cinderella's coach and attendants morph midflight back to their original states, the techno-trickery is fun and captivating.

What's perhaps more impressive, however, are the lovingly detailed craft contributions, notably maestro Dante Ferretti's eye-popping sets. Elements of stately British National Trust properties are incorporated with lavish interiors for a charming 19th century look. Ella's family home is a maze of rooms bursting with art and design, from paintings, tapestries, brocades and exquisite floral wall treatments to a swan chandelier that's like an ice sculpture. The chinoiserie and other exotic elements reflect the father's professional travels, while the attic to which Cinderella is exiled is an imposing garret, rich in gothic grandeur.

Of course, the story's key set piece is the ball, and Ferretti goes all out to create an environment of glittering royal splendor worthy of the romantic fireworks, while Haris Zambarloukos' gliding camera stops just short of going into swooning overdrive. The movie looks dazzling, shot on actual film in anamorphic widescreen.

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Powell's mixed-period costumes, with their astonishing range and inventive design flourishes, are up there with Ferretti's work creating a visual orgy. Blanchett's drop-dead glamour is at the top of the list, with her daughters' gaudy gift-wrap ball gowns at the deliberately vulgar low end. (Their coordinated ensembles throughout are a hoot.)

It's a challenge at this point in pop culture's tireless fascination with the princess fantasy to reinvent the fairy-tale makeover frock. But Cinderella's ball gown is an airy dream, seemingly lit from within, its gauzy sky blue a precise match for the prince's eyes as they pool with tears of joy. While James and Madden are playing set-in-stone archetypes, their chemistry is lovely. And the notion of them as two pure hearts who see the imperfect world not for what it is but what it could be is touching without being syrupy.

Pacing might be a tad leisurely for the youngest audience members here and there, but adults will appreciate the grace and wit of this adaptation. Patrick Doyle's lush score augments the excitement, sadness or romance as required. And in a pleasing nod to the 1950 Disney film, James and Bonham Carter resurrect songs from that version, "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" and "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo," respectively, over the end credits. The former becomes a soaring waltz, which effectively distils the tone of this new Cinderella.

Production company: Walt Disney Pictures
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgard, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Eloise Webb
Director: Kenneth Branagh

Screenwriter: Chris Weitz, based on Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ properties and the fairy tale by Charles Perrault
Producers: Simon Kinberg, Allison Shearmur, David Barron
Executive producer: Tim Lewis
Director of photography: Haris Zambarloukos
Production designer: Dante Ferretti
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Music: Patrick Doyle
Editor: Martin Walsh
Visual effects supervisor: Charley Henley
Casting director: Lucy Bevan

Rated PG, 105 minutes