Ashes to Sashes

Disney’s live-action Cinderella is thrillingly sincere.

Richard Madden and Lily James in Cinderella.
Richard Madden and Lily James in Cinderella.

Photo by Jonathan Olley/Disney Enterprises,Inc.

In 2015, the story of Cinderella is a real challenge. A meek servant girl, lowly and abused until supernatural forces give her nice clothes and a luxe ride, goes to a dance, where a prince is bewitched by her beauty. Curfew issues arise, but luckily she has really tiny feet. Then they get married. Roll credits!

So how does one modernize such a bland, regressive narrative for the big screen? The expected answer, given a slew of recent properties that attempt to add sophistication to familiar lightweight source material by going dark—Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, The Dark Knight, Star Trek Into Darknessis to glamorize or complicate the evil characters while undermining the good ones. In this model, the hero either turns morally ambiguous or serves as the boring foil for a more magnetic adversary. Sensibilities shift from innocent to world-weary.

Yet with his live-action retelling of Cinderella, director Kenneth Branagh accomplishes a wonderful bit of spellwork: He manages to de-toxify Disney’s flagship fairy tale without overcorrecting away its prettiness, sincerity, or charm. This Cinderella, which stars Lily James as the ashes-to-sashes heroine and Game of Thrones Richard Madden as her swain, believes in aesthetics without defaulting to Wes Anderson–style irony. It takes no particular interest in the psychology of Cinderella’s cruel stepsisters, although, in keeping with its overall generous spirit, it does give them a sort of gentle benefit of the doubt, presenting Drisella and Anastasia as harmless figures of fun. Even Cate Blanchett’s widow seems as matter-of-factly bad or deliciously vampy as the plot requires, but not nearly as textured or alive as the good characters. Her motives are predictable: something about how Ella is young and pure; something about wishing to provide for her “beautiful, stupid daughters”; something about suspecting, after her first husband and true love died, that the universe hasn’t given her a fair shake. Conversely, though, the film feels intensely interested in the rich and diverse forms of goodness exhibited by Ella, the prince, the king, and Ella’s parents.

Another quality Branagh is surprisingly, refreshingly not obsessed with? Beauty. Yes, his movie boasts stunning visuals—its storybook roses, fireworks, and forests shot in softly glowing colors, its palace rooms and farmhouses quilled with quaint detail. And sure, Ella is a creature of flaxen waves and beglittered cleavage. (Between her and the fairy godmother, whom Helena Bonham Carter plays as a kind of mincing, magical Dolly Parton, the chests in this movie are incredible. Bippity boppity boobs!) But in this version of the story, the prince has fallen for Ella long before he sees her at the ball; he’s attracted to her kindness and willingness to flout convention. “What’s done isn’t the same as what’s right,” she suggests, at which point the prince, pretending to be “Kit the apprentice,” pulls the most enraptured face you will see in a movie theater all year. This Cinderella isn’t a heroine merely because she’s “beautiful inside and out.” Her strengths prove more specific than that.

“Have courage and be kind” is the film’s echoing refrain: Ella’s mother first says it on her deathbed; Ella, who repeats the motto under her breath in times of ill treatment, makes it the guiding principle of her life. Her steadfastness, admirable on its own, should tell us something about the slippery way this movie handles power. Just as magic lets a mouse become a footman, the right perspective can transfigure obedience into strength. In Cinderella, compassion does not come easily; it calls for grit and sacrifice: When a neighbor arrives to relay the news that Ella’s father has died, the young woman chokes out, with visible effort: “Thank you. That must have been very difficult for you.” Only after he is gone does she collapse against the door. Yet Ella is neither a martyr nor a doormat. Genuinely joyous for much of the film, she loves the lonely, drafty attic to which she’s exiled. Forbidden after the ball from exposing her identity to the prince, she cherishes the memory of the dance. Ella’s superpower is remaining unbroken, a free spirit, under terrible constraints. She lives according to her values and discovers happiness where others would be too unimaginative to look.

She’s virtuous, too, in the classical or medieval courtly sense, adapting perfectly to the needs of the moment. When her father dies and the stepmother must dismiss the servants to stave off financial ruin, Ella capably cooks and cleans. When her stepmother refuses to buy her a dress for the prince’s soirée, she fashions her own gown from a family heirloom. At the dance, as a prospective queen, Ella must demonstrate that she can enchant a ballroom full of aristocrats and commoners. Suddenly she is the most graceful, captivating woman on the floor. I’ve no doubt that if Branagh had required her to suit up like Kristen Stewart’s Snow White and lead troops into battle, Ella could pull it off adroitly.

But this Cinderella, who, the narrator tells us, “sees things not as they are but as they could be,” has an altogether rarer calling than ingénue or even warrior. It’s a strange role for a fairy tale protagonist and especially for a Disney princess, because it implies an oldness or maturity of soul. (Is that how Branagh and his screenwriter, Chris Weitz, finally tempered the naiveté of his source story?) Ella, alive to the potential in things and people, is an educator. She leads by example and by explicit instruction; her words fall like sediment through characters’ minds until they are reproduced, slightly altered, in their speech. Not only does Ella instruct the prince in kindness and fairness—the script makes much of his status as “apprentice monarch” and even his name, Kit, evokes a baby badger—but she finds time during her breathless escape from the ball to tell the king how to be a father. (Later, a marvelous, scratchy-voiced Derek Jacobi shows that he has internalized the lesson—that Kit has become his own man, and a good one—by allowing his son to follow his heart.) And of course mothers and fathers (and stepmothers and godmothers) lie at the heart of this film about pedagogy. In a genre that can be pretty callous to moms and dads, Branagh has created a fairy tale movie where both leads have tender, reverberating, centerpiece scenes with a beloved parent.

Updating a fairy tale often means excavating the grisly bits left out of kid’s anthologies. (Revelations that “fairy tales are not just for children” are as thickly strewn across the Web as ones that “comic books are not just for children,” and you can chant both mantras around a bonfire to summon enraged fans.) But I loved how Cinderella reveled in its Disney-ness. Consider the playful callbacks: Ella twirling around as her dress shimmers magically between pink and blue (Sleeping Beauty), Ella asking her father for the first bough that brushes his shoulder on the road, while her stepsisters request lace and parasols (Beauty and the Beast). Alice in Wonderland hovers behind the heroine’s madcap flight from the palace, especially as her pumpkin carriage shrinks with her still inside. At one point Kit spirits Ella away from the party to show her a “secret garden,” replete with rope swing and roses the size of cauliflowers. The grotto, at once an allusion and the perfect semi-sexual backdrop, sums up Cinderella. Sweet. Dreamily romantic. In control of its material but willing to have fun with it.

And willing to awe us. Branagh also makes space in his movie for old-fashioned wonder. Several of us in the audience sighed at the first sight of Ella’s Uber to the ball, an extremely delicate golden squash coach haphazardly piloted by a goose. When the heroine floats down the spiral stairs of the palace, she is every inch the archetypal fantasy princess the poster promised.

I haven’t even mentioned Ella’s feminism—“we ladies must help one another,” she tells a mouse pal, shooing away a cat—or Kit’s annoyance at being reduced to another Prince Charming. (“I’m not the prince, I’m a prince,” he snaps.) I haven’t mentioned Branagh’s vision of a fairy tale kingdom where nobles and peasants of all races mix easily, a reminder of the director’s roots in modern theatrical Shakespeare, where color-blind casting is the rule, not the exception. Maybe these nods to contemporary gender and racial dynamics were focus-grouped into existence. But if Ella’s courage and kindness, and the film’s overall worthy intentions, get a little tired after two hours, it’s nice to remember that villains need not have the monopoly on rich, full, complicated inner lives. Nor, in this our age of irony, are sincerity and depth mutually exclusive.