If anyone has a spiritual copyright on the story of Cinderella, it's Disney. Though the fairytale has been knocking around the kingdoms and cottages of Europe for at least 500 years, the version that sticks in most people's minds is Disney's 1950 animation, a sumptuous and elegant musical retelling that saved the studio from bankruptcy and is still considered one of the best feature-length cartoons ever made.
This live-action remake is strongly inspired by that version: it makes many affectionate references to the cartoon, and also tries with some success to mimic its fluent visual style. It further cements Kenneth Branagh's recent renaissance as a commercial director for hire: he does a very solid job of handling a lively and sure-footed film that sometimes sparks to life wonderfully, but suffers a little from the dullness of its romantic leads.
Ella (played as a child by Eloise Webb) is born into an idyllic family in a misty fairytale kingdom. Her mother (Hayley Atwell) is a stunning domestic goddess, her father (Ben Chaplin) a loving, good-humoured merchant, and Ella skips through an enchanted childhood surrounded by fluttering birds and a band of mice who seem on the verge of saying something. But the fun stops when her mother tastefully dies and her grieving father meets a beguiling but sinister female called Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett).
She soon becomes the dreaded stepmother, and moves into Ella's house with her noisy, powdered daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera). When her father works himself into an early grave trying to keep Lady Tremaine and co in the style to which they claim to be accustomed, Ella is left at her stepmother's mercy. Banished to the attic, she's treated like a lackey and nicknamed Cinderella by her stepsisters because of her tendency to fall asleep, exhausted, in the kitchen fireplace.
All seems lost until Cinders is riding in the forest and runs into a royal hunting party led by Kit (Richard Madden), the kingdom's heir apparent. He's smitten, but his mystery love disappears before he can find out about her. In the hopes of finding her, Kit then announces a grand ball open to all the kingdom's maidens at which he'll choose his bride.
Lady Tremaine and her ghastly daughters are delighted, but forbid Cinders to attend the ball. However, just when all hope seems lost, an absent-minded fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) turns up to lend a much-needed hand.
Branagh and his writers tell the old story pretty much by the book: there are few post-modern twists, and a $100m budget helps ensure that Cinderella is very nice to look at. Sandy Powell's costumes are magnificent, and this blast of life and colour should definitely be experienced on the big screen.
But a decent film is prevented from becoming something truly special by a slight want of humour, and the quintessential drippiness of its two leads.
Maybe Cinderella has to be drippy: she's so revoltingly wholesome and blemish-free that she's bound to come across as sanctimonious. But Lily James's twinkly-eyed portrayal of the impecunious heroine made me wish that someone would throw a bucket of water over her, and her true love Kit seems every bit as dull.
Most of the film's light relief comes from the old stepmother, played with glorious and glamorous aplomb by Blanchett. But the comic potential of her daughters is largely squandered by a script that insists on making them sympathetic, and Helena Bonham Carter's wonderfully eccentric and dizzy appearance as Cinderella's fairy godmother is frustratingly brief.
She seems confused and always on the point of remembering something very important, and she and Blanchett are a lot of the reason why Cinderella is such an easy film to watch.
Cinderella (G, 105mins)
Why does the Disney corporation imagine that there is an audience for yet another version of Cinderella, now appearing on screens everywhere (featuring Lily James with an 18-inch waist)? Possibly because Cinderella is the most popular child's fairytale in the world.
She’s the star of a Disney fairytale blockbuster that’s coined over €200million and counting at the US box office. But Cinderella beauty Lily James claims she’ll always be left in the shade by her Downton Abbey co-stars.