I have always believed that if we are good and kind and brave, we’ll be rewarded for it. That’s why (even if I’m not always successful at it) I always try to do what I can for others, and I feel bad when my good intentions don’t amount to very much.
That’s a pretty common truth. Sometimes, no matter how well-meaning our intentions are, it’s still possible to let others down because of some deep flaw in ourselves, whether it’s as innocuous as time management or as nefarious as self-sabotage because we don’t really believe we’re worthy of being rewarded.
But sometimes, perhaps more frequently than we might like to admit, we let others down because their expectations of us are too high. And yet we keep striving, keep aiming for that impossible approval, keep on trying to be good and kind and respectful in spite of the obstacles placed in front of us, whether by everyday life or by the very people we’re trying to help.
Because still we desperately hope, way down in the deepest parts of us, that no matter how hard life gets or how much it gets us down, we’ll be rewarded for our efforts.
Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella embodies that philosophy far better than the 1950 original ever did. To be perfectly honest, I always hated the original Cinderella. The titular character let her stepfamily walk all over her, maintained a massive estate singlehandedly, and didn’t shed a tear until they destroyed her dress. I know that was meant to be a last-straw moment, but nobody is that selfless.
There she was, getting ready for another day of horrible drudgery, and she was singing about how “no matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.” But since there was no crying of any kind going on until her party dress got shredded, Ella must have been doing a pretty good job of keeping all her feelings bottled up inside.
That’s not the case with Lily James’s interpretation of the character. She tries to keep her family from seeing how much they hurt her, but when she’s alone, she lets it all out. It’s clear that they’re breaking down her spirit bit by bit, and unlike the original movie, we actually know this time why she’s staying and putting up with all the abuse: because she wants to watch over the place where her family was happy. That’s a big difference from the original, where Cinderella was a flat character built out of servitude and soap bubbles.
Also unlike the original, we actually get to see her relationship with her parents. In that respect, it was very similar to Ella Enchanted, starring my girl Anne Hathaway. When we get to see that beautiful relationship and how happy Ella is while they’re a family, it makes the whole story that much more painful when we see how badly she’s treated after their deaths.
Then there’s Prince Kitt, who’s also a stark departure from the cardboard Prince Charming cutout. While the original prince just went along with everything and let himself be married off (I don’t even think he had any lines), Kitt is intrigued by Ella the moment he sees her and does everything in his power to see her again. He won’t even look at any other girls, because he knows full well what he wants and intends to get it.
At the same time, though, he isn’t stuck up or proud. He’s a young prince who knows he’s a novice about to take on a job that could very well be too difficult for him. He isn’t sure yet who he is or what sort of king he wants to be, but the one thing he learns very quickly is that he’ll do a much better job of it with Ella at his side to keep him good and kind.
And that’s something I really like about Ella and Kitt’s relationship: she isn’t a poor waif being rescued from a life of slavery by a handsome stranger, and he isn’t a passive slice of man-meat allowing himself to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. They need each other and what the other brings to the relationship, which makes them an equal match despite their different backgrounds and upbringings (again, very similar to Ella Enchanted).
One thing I’ve observed in most Cinderella adaptations (even though I’m aware that this is a remake and thus not an adaptation, although really all the movies are adaptations from the original fairy tale. But I digress) is that the stepmother, who likes to be called Madam, is evil simply for the sake of being evil.
Her motivations were briefly touched on here — namely, that she was once in love but lost her husband and was forced to marry again to save herself and her daughters. She then was reminded every day that her new husband would never love her and would always prize his daughter first and foremost. Still, when Ella confronted her stepmother about her behaviour, Madam merely says, “Because you are young and innocent.”
What kind of motivation is that for systematically destroying a person? I get that the stepmother character is typically considered a wicked shell of a human being, but I would have liked for that to be delved into a little more, and for her to be more of a sympathetic character. Don’t get me wrong, I feel bad that her husband died. But clearly she did more than a few things wrong in life if her children turned out that way.
I think Madam’s story could have been more effective if we had seen the stepmother and her husband together before his death. Maybe they were even friends with Ella’s parents, and maybe they were blissfully happy together, both of which would provide good reasons for Ella’s father to become interested in Madam at all — because she was her best self when she was with her husband. And maybe her daughters became spoiled after his death because Madam buried her grief by lavishing them with attention.
Stories never benefit from flat characters, so I was pleased to see that the Grand Duke is more conniving than he first lets on. In the original story, he sticks to the party line by following the king’s orders to the letter: finding the girl who the glass slipper belongs to. In this version, he has such pride in the kingdom that he won’t allow a commoner to become queen, nor will he jeopardize the kingdom’s position in international relations.
But because of this stance, the Grand Duke sees the prince less as a person and more as a pawn in what’s essentially European Monopoly (except instead of buying hotels you marry off princes, and if you’re bankrupted then your whole family dies, probably). As a result, he goes behind his king’s back to do what he believes is best. He’s portrayed as being evil because his desires go against what the audience wants for Ella, but really, he’s just doing his job.
The king is a nice foil to the Grand Duke. He starts out with the same mindset as the Duke, although it’s tempered by fatherly love. So although he’s initially against Kitt doing his own thing and marrying whoever he chooses, he comes around just before his death and encourages Kitt to do what makes him happy.
Oh, and let’s not forget about the Fairy Godmother. In the original, she’s a round old lady who likes saying nonsense words and creating awesome stuff out of nothing (basically she’s a grandmother, except not as cool as mine). In this version, she’s a blonde Helena Bonham Carter wrapped in a sparkly dress. Maybe she’s a little bit bonkers, but that just adds to her whimsical charm.
That being said, I’m not a fan of her as the story’s narrator. I’m not big on narrators at all, really, ever since my friend Colin told me in no uncertain terms that it was the douchiest thing ever and I needed to rewrite the first ten chapters of my manuscript post-haste. I’ve since come to the opinion that narrators are only necessary to supplement poor writing, especially when the writer can’t figure out how to start or end the story.
Yes, I get that traditional fairy tales have that “once upon a time some stuff happened and they lived happily ever after” structure, but it translates differently in film. I know I’ve discussed this before in previous reviews; when you gain the ability to control the story’s visuals, you lose the ability to streamline the narrative process with the written word. It’s a trade-off that screenwriters need to be willing to make, but unfortunately many of them don’t seem to be.
I’ve seen a couple of reviews already from people who say this was a terrible movie, that it was just another adaptation, that it doesn’t do anything new. And maybe they’re right: it’s not exactly what you’d call a groundbreaking contribution to cinema. But that’s not what it’s meant to be.
The original Cinderella came out in 1950 — 55 years ago, in case you don’t math. That was two entire generations ago. Since then we’ve had numerous Cinderella-esque adaptations, ranging from A Cinderella Story to Ella Enchanted to Once Upon A Time — and those were just the ones I’ve actually watched.
Today’s girls, all those little ones who come to the theatre in the fancy dresses, excited to see a real live princess on the screen, need to see the story fresh for themselves. They need a story they can believe in, one that’s new and real for them, written specifically for girls growing up right now in 2015.
It isn’t the ’50s anymore. Girls don’t exist to do the chores and wait on the man hand and foot. They can take control of their own lives, make their own choices, make their own mistakes, and call the shots for themselves. But most importantly, they can also decide what kind of person they want to be. Do they want to be the kind of girl who lashes back when they’re treated badly, or do they want to be the kind of girl who is good and kind and brave?
I’m not saying girls these days should be doormats. I’m saying that, in a world where girls are growing up to be entitled because they watched stories about the old Disney princesses getting the world handed to them on a silver plate, it’s time for them to see a much more realistic version where there’s a little bit of elbow grease involved. If they want their lives to be great, they’re going to have to work for it. And they aren’t going to achieve it by trying to reach others’ standards: they can only do it by raising their own.
And maybe then, if they’re good and kind and brave, they’ll get their happily ever after.
Final Grade: A-
- Apparently Kitt is a common nickname for guys named Christopher. That sounds much more princely. I’m okay with it.
- Dang, Ella sure books it out of the castle quickly. I can’t even get from my apartment to the parkade in under a minute.
- I like how the Fairy Godmother actually thought ahead and made it so the stepmother and stepsisters wouldn’t recognize Cinderella. Seriously, how dumb is her family in all the other movies?
- If Ella stayed all that time to keep an eye on the house, why’d she just ditch it at the end? Was it meant to illustrate that Kitt was her new family and she kept her old family’s happiness inside her? Or did they just keep it as a summer home and not tell us?
- Those costumes, you guys. I died.
- I love the part where Cinderella and The Doctor are dating, and Prince Kitt and Clara Oswald are basically married. Best. Crossover. Ever. (Barring that most impossible of dreams, SuperWhoLock, of course.) That is all.