Cinderella****

Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter 

Sweet and kind Ella lives a happy childhood until her mother, the very person who taught her the value of kindness, dies. A little after her death, Ella’s merchant father marries a widow with two daughters, Anastasia and Drisella, who reveal themselves to be the polar opposite of Ella’s good character. When he also passes away, her stepmother and sisters take control of the house and turn Ella into a servant. Her name is cruelly morphed into Cinderella. One day in the woods Ella/Cinderella meets prince Kit, who is being pressured to choose a bride. Thanks to her fairy godmother’s magic, Ella goes to the ball and wins the prince’s heart. Love conquers all.

Kenneth Branagh’s live action remake of one of the most beloved tales is rich in costumes and magnificently directed. Branagh does not try to surprise the audience with a reinvention of the story, as Maleficent recently did (a feminist take on Sleeping Beauty). He aims to restore Cinderella to its initial simplicity, maybe to a fault, by staying as close as possible to the original animated movie. He is coherent on a visual as well as a narrative level. Protagonists and antagonists are not particularly nuanced and lack of any of those gothic undertones which seem to have been a popular choice in the most recent remakes of famous tales.

A rich and well-chosen cast of actors populates the screen, from up and coming TV names (Game of Thrones’s Richard Madden and Downton Abbey’s Lily James and Sophie McShera) to feature stars (Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Stellan Skargård, and supporting actors, Ben Chaplin and Derek Jacobi). The choice of Dante Ferretti as production designer is definitely another win for Branagh.

Chris Weitz’s screenplay plays it safe, with very few plot twists and additions to the story. However, Ella’s stepmother is granted a very light backstory and the royal palace does become more than a setting for the ball. Within the limitations of the genre, it is a center of intrigue and power, where the Grand Duke tests his international influence by choosing a Spanish bride for the prince, and where Ella’s stepmother is seen blackmailing the powers that be. Sat the same time the love story between Ella and her prince is so underdeveloped that it is hard to buy into the emotional aftermath of the ball.

In the end, Ella/Cinderella’s character, so good from the very beginning — her mantra is to “be kind and have courage”, which has been passed on to her by her mom — becomes the paradigm of the movie. This is a tale that children will fall in love with due to its simplicity and visual wonders, like animals and vegetables coming to life before their very eyes.

Adults may not be as in love with it since this Cinderella does lack character nuances and twists that would have given the story a breath of fresh air. A long monologue guides the audience throughout, mimicking the way bedtime stories are read. We can appreciate Cinderella’s excellent directing, convincing performances and beautiful setting: it would have been even better if the story were a little less of a fairytale and more of a meaningful journey.

Luisa Cotta Ramosino