CINDERELLA * * * ½
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
In recent years, audiences have been treated to a number of live-action fairy tales They include the whimsical Stardust with Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro; Enchanted. starring an adorably cheerful Amy Adams; the revisionist Maleficent with Angelina Jolie; the box-office juggernaut Alice in Wonderland featuring a make-up clad Johnny Depp; and last year's Stephen Sondheim musical adaptation Into the Woods. Now we have Kenneth Branagh's take on the classic story of Cinderella.
The story is just as you remember it from Disney's animated version: A young maiden's ideal childhood is forever lost when her mother falls ill and her father re-marries a woman who cares more about status than family. When he also dies, our Cinderella (lovely 'Downton Abbey' actress Lily James) is at the mercy of her step-mother (a terrific Cate Blanchett) and her two cruel step-sisters, who turn her into their personal servant. One day, when she wanders into the woods on horseback, she encounters a young man and falls in love. Little does she know this man is really the prince (an appropriately dashing Richard Madden) and heir to the throne whose heart she has stolen so innocently in their chance meeting. Knowing he must choose a bride who will eventually become Queen, the smitten prince declares the upcoming royal ball will be open to all the maidens of the land, including "commoners." In doing so, he hopes to be reunited with this young woman he can't stop thinking of. And all that leads to the magical grand ball, courtesy of her helpful Fairy Godmother (a nice change-of-pace role for Helena Bonham Carter). Then, there is -- of course -- the fabled search for the maiden whose foot fits into a left-behind glass slipper. Yes, there is a happily ever after.
Director Kenneth Branagh eschews the idea of re-inventing the wheel here. This is a traditional fairy tale, complete with a put-upon maiden, evil step-mothers and sisters, cute furry mice and magical fairy godmothers. You might be thinking at this point that this is a deadly dull affair, but you'd be wrong. While he has ventured into other genres in the past few years, delivering acceptable diversions with the hit first entry of Thor adventures, as well as the disappointing but well-made Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Branagh reminds us of his earlier triumphs. There is a grand ball that evokes memories of his masterpiece Hamlet (1996), with swirling dancers and vivid colors. Sumptuous production design by Dante Ferretti and the costumes by Sandy Powell help make this a visual feast, while Patrick Doyle provides a solid romantic music score. By telling this story straight, without tinkering with it at all, Branagh allows us to enjoy the tale all anew. Which proves that even the oldest stories can seem fresh when told well and with style.