It’s been a lackluster year so far, but I think we’re finally over that desperate hump of January and February, and we can finally look forward to going to the theatre again. Although, I will warn viewers who would like to avoid the hordes of small children that not even a 10:50 pm showing is safe. (Seriously, what parent keeps their 5 year old up until midnight for a movie that will be in theatres for weeks?)
Those of you who read this blog often will no doubt be waiting for me to rake poor Chris Weitz over the coals, as that’s what I tend to do to screenwriters. Well, surprise surprise, I’m not going to do that. Weitz’s script was tight and clean, with lovely dialogue, loose ends, and it treated all of the characters with respect. I will admit that there were areas of the script and dialogue that were a little simplistic for my taste. I’m going to ignore that because in the end, this is a film thats intended audience is about 25 years younger than me. Simple, clear messages are what is going to stick with them, not witty exchanges.
Moreover, the script is one of the most mature and earnest retellings of the fairy tale that I’ve come across in any format. The film doesn’t start with a quick prologue establishing Cinderella’s status as an unlucky and unwanted orphan. Instead we get a heartwarming view of her childhood before either of her parents die. Now we know what Ella lost when her mother died, and again what she lost when her father died years later. We know where she got her inner strength, where her sweet nature came from, and why she works so hard to ‘have courage, and be kind.’ A theme of humility, hard work, and compassion for others follows other characters throughout the film, with those who follow this ethic in their lives rewarded while our least favorite Stepmother is the exact opposite.
For those afraid that this Cinderella will carry political statements about feminism, true love, or any number of other topics, you may rest easy. Weitz and Branagh decided to steer clear of those waters and simply retell the tale in a beautiful way that will stand the test of time. About the only way to date this film is by the special effects and cinematography, not the writing. There’s no discussion of Cinderella not having someplace to go to escape her Stepmother, she simply tells an old friend that she can’t bear to leave the house her parents loved and which had sheltered her family for so many generations. She’s not there because she’s a female with no better options, she’s there because she chooses to be there. There’s no comment on ‘true love,’ though Weitz does lay out a historically accurate reason for the Prince to marry someone he’s barely met.
The success of the writing means I can talk about other things that I really enjoy about going to movies, and what wins my cinematic heart after screenwriting. First up: music. I don’t talk much about my background in music on this site, but suffice to say, I think I’m better able to not read or write than I am to not listen to or make music. Patrick Doyle does the soundtrack for this movie, and you might recognize his work from Pixar’s Brave (as well as about twenty other films). His score here is delectable, and even goes so far as to have a love theme that runs all the way through the film. For those of you expecting singing mice, the only hint you’ll get of the soundtrack of the 1950s animated classic is a few bars of ‘Sing Sweet Nightengale’ hummed by Ella in a single scene, and some covers at the end credits. I was constantly delighted by the music in this film, from the use of traditional songs, to the repetition of themes, to some just beautifully soaring moments.
And of course, the costuming and set design are incredibly eye catching. The sets are beautiful, and give us impressions of both an English countryside as well as a fantasy palace that is simply incredible. Gone are the medieval towers and turrets, and in are gilt domes, arched colonnades, and beautiful formal gardens. Ella’s house is a super cute tudor cottage covered in flowers. I can’t think of another fairy tale movie that has given its sets such an eye to detail, stayed away from the standard tropes, and given me a kingdom I’d happily move right into.
And the costuming! I’ve had some time to think on this, and I honestly think that costumer Sandy Powell has done perhaps the most exquisite job of anyone in/on this film. Underneath all the electric bright colors are a set of costumes that tell the observant viewer an incredible wealth of detail about the characters. Ella is a ‘simple country girl,’ but she also spends most of the movie dressed in clothes 20 years or more out of fashion compared to the outfits of other characters (and my own knowledge of fashion history). This is never addressed by the characters, but the difference in silhouette alone allow Ella to stand apart from the Stepmother, Drusila, and Anastasia without Ella being dressed in utter rags.
Speaking of our villains, I was floored by Powell’s decision to blend 19th century fashion with the 1950s. Of all the decades since women left the corset behind, the 1950s was the one where we altered our silhouette’s the most (bras, girdles, shoulder pads, crinolines… everything!) and went for a level of sophisticated glamour that today is rarely embraced even on the red carpet. It gave Cate Blanchett's Stepmother as sophisticated grace that had some tie to what other characters were wearing while feeling like the most fashionable person in any room to movie viewers who have no idea that Ella is dressed from the 1790s, and when we first meet the Stepsisters they are dressed from the 1820s. (And seriously, can I have the Stepmother’s millener? Those hats!)
Before I drag this out too much longer, I should say that all of the acting in this film was superb. Yes, Anastasia and Drusila are nearly cartoonish in their presentation, but from cloths to lines it’s clear that this is the intent. We’re not supposed to empathize with them; they are our comedic relief. On the other side, Blanchett gives us a nuanced and layered Stepmother who is vindictive, maybe bitter, but not outright evil. Supporting characters that are well rounded from a host of famous and incredibly talented actors add to the overall film rather than divert attention away from our protagonist. For myself, however, Helena Bonham Carter’s one scene as the Fairy Godmother quite steals the show. It’s adorable, it’s both fun and funny, and I was grinning the whole time.
In the end, the only bad things I can say about this film are that it is just a bit too simplistic. There was no envelope pushing in terms of writing or genre. But again, this is a film that needs to be seen and enjoyed by both a four year old and an eighty year old at the same time. In that, it succeeds, and should I ever have children, you can be sure that they’ll find this movie in their collection, likely over the 1950s classic. If I end up with a Princess-crazy girl, I will appreciate the message that princesses have courage and are kind as well as humble, forgiving, and hard working, and that through all of those admirable character traits they get a happily ever after.