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Cinderella is one of the most prominent fairy tales of the twentieth century. Now, almost 70 years after the release of Disney’s animated version of the story, Kenneth Branagh has released his incredibly faithful live action Cinderella. But despite how wonderfully beautiful and superbly crafted the movie was, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Who is this movie for? And are these messages relevant anymore?
The film tells the story of Cinderella exactly as we have all heard it a thousand times before, which is perhaps the film’s greatest flaw. Within the first five minutes, when I realised how loyal this retelling was going to be, I groaned internally, knowing exactly how the next ninety minutes were going to play out. But I told myself: this movie is to introduce young audiences to the story.
There are two problems with this. Firstly, the film is far more mature than you would think, often recalling nostalgia for 1950’s romance and dancing movies more than it does any form of modern children’s movie. Kids throughout the cinema squirmed through intellectually demanding scenes, as I was enthralled by the pathos. So this movie definitely doesn’t seem aimed at the kiddies. Secondly, is this story really one we want to teach young girls and boys? Branagh’s retelling is entirely faithful to the 1950 film, sexist and degrading portrayal of women included. Cinderella is still portrayed as a helpless damsel in distress. There were many moments when the evil stepmother was being an absolute arsehole, and all I wanted Cinderella to do was give her a good kicking. But of course she doesn’t, spouting incredibly vague sentiments of kindness and love instead. Children’s movies have grown more complex than these Disney sentiments. Pixar movies, for example, teach kids wonderful lessons without shoving it down their throats, simply through having narratives and characters that support good behaviours and thoughts.
Though Cinderella doesn’t remedy the sexism of past retellings, it does attempt somewhat to balance gender representation through its portrayal of the Prince. There are several scenes in which the Prince reveals his insecurities and weakness. A particularly praiseworthy scene includes the prince at his father’s deathbed, which concludes with him weeping in the fetal position under his dying father’s arms. Though this demonstration of male weakness doesn’t forgive the problematic representation of women, it feels better than nothing.
But despite the questions of why this movie was made and for whom, there is no denying that it is a beautiful piece of cinema. Colourful, vibrant and often a joy to behold, Branagh’s direction brings the world to life, giving the film a fluidity and form that often kept me engaged when the narrative didn’t. There are quite a few set pieces as well, such as a tense carriage ride, which give the film a much-needed sense of action. Personally, I was smitten by an extended ballroom dancing scene between Cinderella and the Prince, the exquisitely choreographed movements accompanied by equally superb direction. However, the little girl beside me didn’t seem to share my enjoyment: she took the moment as an opportunity to turn around and rest her face against the back of her seat.
The film is very well cast, using many lesser-known talents and only ever using big celebrities in roles they are very much suited for. Lily James as Cinderella and Richard Madden as the Prince were particularly likable, which is surprising as they both were often working with pretty over-the-top material. Cate Blanchett as the Evil Stepmother and Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother were also excellent. Blanchett gave a performance which gave complexity to a historically one-dimensional character; Bonham Carter, on the other hand, was working with a script that was clearly written specifically for her, and so of course she rocked it.
Cinderella is a beautiful film, but the question needs to be asked about its relevance in the twenty-first century. In the end the real draw should be the short film that opens it: Frozen Fever. Now that is a franchise that understands how to make meaningful kids’ entertainment for this century.