I’m not sure if children are going to enjoy Disney’s new live-action version of Cinderella, which opens in wide release today. It’s a subtle film, marked by greater consideration for psychology and decor than one typically finds in children’s entertainment. Barring the broadly comic performances of Helena Bonham Carter (who turns in a cameo as the fairy godmother) and Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger (who play the wicked stepsisters)—not to mention the presence of some anthropomorphized mice held over from the 1950 animated original—the characters are introspective and the performances are reserved. The production design (by Dante Ferretti, whose credits include Pasolini’s Salo and numerous films by Fellini and Scorsese) and Sandy Powell’s costumes are similarly refined. The color schemes seem to have been modeled after the rich hues of 1940s and ’50s Technicolor, while much of the meticulous detail suggest a visual report on late-Renaissance-era Europe. The average shot length, moreover, is decidedly longer than that of most recent Hollywood spectacles—at times the movie feels like a guided tour of a museum.
This is unmistakably the work of Kenneth Branagh, who built his reputation as a film director on the high-toned Shakespeare adaptations Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Hamlet (1996). In fact, I was reminded of Branagh’s Hamlet whenever Cinderella went into the royal palace, and not just because Derek Jacobi plays a king in both films. Both movies ground classic stories in immersive depictions of the European past and modern notions of human behavior. The goal is to make viewers relate to the characters on an immediate level while preserving the mythic dimensions of the tales. Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations were attempts to popularize the Bard for mainstream movie audiences—this Cinderella brings a veneer of high art to a story that’s never ebbed in popularity. Again, I’m not sure if kids will appreciate the effort.
It’s debatable as to when and where the story of Cinderella originates, but the tale was first anthologized in the 17th century by Giambattista Basile in Italy (whose collection of folk tales appeared in the 1630s) and by Charles Perrault in France (whose fairy tale anthology came out near the end of the century). By the time the Brothers Grimm printed their version in the early 19th century, there had already been at least one musical adaptation of the story. Branagh’s film doesn’t identify when exactly the story takes place, though the settings suggest it’s some time between the publication of the Basile and Grimm Brothers collections. The backdrop is European society’s transition from feudalism to modern capitalism. Cinderella’s family home appears to be a landed estate, though the early scenes establish that her father has taken up work as a traveling merchant to make money. When he dies, the estate goes into disrepair, as it no longer generates income on its own. Thus Cinderella’s transformation from beloved daughter to exploited servant reflects the loss of power by her entire social class.
The wicked stepmother is presented as clearly bourgeois, the widow of a trade organization president who’s married her way up the social ladder. Her wickedness towards Cinderella seems rooted primarily in envy, though the filmmakers also draw attention to the setbacks she’s faced in life—the tragedy of losing two husbands, then the humiliation of losing her social privilege so soon after gaining it. As written by Chris Weitz, directed by Branagh, and performed by Cate Blanchett, the stepmother isn’t detestable so much as pitiable, a victim of personal and historical circumstances who takes her frustrations out on her stepdaughter. It’s a compelling portrait, though it doesn’t really jive, ideologically speaking, with the film’s other revisionist changes to the Disney original, to which it’s quite faithful in other respects.
In this film, for instance, the Prince is a progressive politician who comes to issue democratic reforms. He’s less interested in military glory than in spreading prosperity at home—his pursuit of Cinderella, a commoner, mirrors his political commitment to the middle class. Cinderella first meets the Prince before the ball, while he’s on a hunt in the woods. Embarrassed by his royal privilege, he introduces himself as Kit, hoping to pass as her equal. Their subsequent meeting at the ball continues the tone of the first, even though the Prince doesn’t recognize Cinderella as the girl from the woods.
As for Cinderella herself, Branagh has stated in interviews that he and Weitz wanted to make her more independent-minded than in earlier versions. (“Our film is not about waiting for the perfect man to come along,” he’s said, poignantly.) And so we see the heroine reading and designing her own clothes, and they also give her a chance to tell off her stepmother in measured language. In the film’s logic, Cinderella truly deserves to become a princess—not only is she kind, but also intelligent and self-motivated. This development shows faith in the democratic ideal of meritocracy, but without questioning the validity of monarchy—a punch-pulling strategy typical of Disney productions.
I don’t consider this Cinderella as hypocritical as Disney’s recent travesty—Into the Woods—nor do I find it a bland exercise in political correctness like Maleficent, the studio’s recent live-action remake of Sleeping Beauty. Branagh and company want to understand the contradictions inherent in the classic fairy tale, which curiously inspires sympathy for royalty and the downtrodden but few people in between. The film roots those contradictions, plausibly enough, in the growing pains of early-modern European society. How do the magical interventions of Cinderella’s fairy godmother fit into this brazenly grown-up reinterpretation? I couldn’t tell you.