Romeo and Juliet. That is the project our new Cinderella Lily James, her Prince Richard Madden, and their director Kenneth Branagh have decided to tackle now that their live-action Disney film has been deemed a rousing success.
With their interpretation of a fairy tale which everyone has heard (filtered through the lens of an animated classic which, judging by dusty shelves of VHS tapes worldwide, everyone has seen) already in the books, what we can deduce from their next collaboration is this: this is a repertory company that does not mind treading upon well-trod ground. All the power to them. If their sumptuous adaptation of Cinderella is any indication, they are quite skilled at it.
This is no real surprise in Branagh’s case. This is a return to a sort of classical form for a director who spent the first decade of his career seemingly (and blessedly) ignorant that there had been stories written after the Industrial Revolution but who last year directed a failed reboot of a spy franchise. At his best, he takes material that has been done to death and he does it again, stripping away the muck of decade’s of cultural detritus and trusting, above all, the material.
The material might be a bit untrustworthy in this particular case. For some, seeing an utterly sincere version of the Cinderella tale in 2015 (and seeing it become a box office smash) has become cause for alarm. Because its 20-freakin-15 and Cinderella isn’t exactly a feminist parable. Her passively dreaming and wishing for a prince to sweep her away was pretty passe in 1950, and there’s been a whole feminist revolution since then. Bras were burned, so I absolutely get why hearing that Lily James had to go on a liquid diet to fit into an insane corset that makes her look like something only an animator could draw would raise some hackles.
Can I say this though? The corset was overkill for sure, but I never fully noticed the freakishly compressed-quality of James’s waist in the dress because, I mean, have you seen the dress?! There it is swishing and swaying, sparkling but also remaining this utterly calming, placid blue, the platonic ideal of blue, the uberblue.
A gif can not do justice to the way that dress looks on the big screen. Or to the way Branagh’s Cinderella looks on the big screen, how it moves and lives and breathes. Normally you reserve that sort of praise for an action spectacle like Avengers or a CGI accomplishment like Gravity (and Cinderella has one portion, as Cinderella makes her midnight dash, that suddenly becomes a CGI action spectacle and it is hideous and garish and really harshes one’s mellow), but here the wonder is all in how lush and well-designed the movie is.
In many ways Branagh and his collaborators behind the camera – production designer Dante Feretti, costume designer Sandy Powell, composer Patrick Doyle, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos – are the real stars of this Cinderella. On YouTube, Tony Zhou produces a series of video essays called “Every Frame a Painting,” a phrase I whispered to myself on many occasions as a particular composition brought new life and understanding to a story that has been so done by this point that the movie opens awkwardly with the Disney logo, which just so happens to spoil the story we are preparing to watch. We know that castle is, iconically, Cinderella’s Castle. She is going to end up there. All you can do as a filmmaker is pick up nuggets of the profound on the carriage ride there.
In this adaptation, the profundity is in the art direction. It is in the carriage itself, which is mindbogglingly ornate. It’s there in shots that capture a young woman’s grief – they keep their distance, one jumping into an adjacent room as Ella and her father spend their last moments with her dear mother, and one tracking away from a crumpled Ella as she holds the branch her father sent before dying. And it’s there in the way Zambarloukos films the ball in sweeping, off-kilter shots that are fast and snappy. It’s nearly stupefying in the scene where Ella’s fairy godmother whips her ball gown together out of blue sparkles – the world fades away and Ella and her blue sparkles are embossed on a black background, butterflies flitting about.
In many cases, like in those mentioned above, the actors need do nothing more than sit still and wear the costume correctly (no small feat considering the horrid-sounding liquid diet), let the camera track away from them, allow the music to swell. Notably, in the fabulous shot that monitors the grieving family from rooms away, the most striking thing is a swan chandelier Feretti may have labored over for longer than Chris Weitz molded the film’s script. Those swans are a piece of art within a shot that is itself a piece of art. The script is somewhat less artful, though it’s carried off with aplomb and, of course, visual flair.
It would be unfair to call James and Madden props in these stunning designs – they both do absolutely delightful work and share a spark that will undoubtedly burn even brighter in their Romeo & Juliet – but in many shots, Branagh’s team has done so much work establishing atmosphere through sound and architecture and costume and camera placement, that all James has to do is look stunning. Which she undoubtedly is. Still, when she walks in late to the ball and everyone stops in their tracks, one wonders: is it because of James’s graceful beauty, or the way that dress enhances it?
James is a virtual unknown on loan from that sputtering British juggernaut, Downton Abbey. There, she was a blatant replacement when one was needed – a spot opened up for a gorgeous, husky voiced, boundary-pushing iconoclast when the previous one perished. Here she has an unenviable job all its own – she has to play someone who is unfalteringly decent. Look no further than paragons of virtue like modern-age Mickey Mouse and Michael Bay’s Optimus Prime; unflagging decency can be a major chore, if not an utter vacuum. James has to sell good ol’ vanilla Cinderella to an audience that has grown accustomed to the notion that Snow White should wear a breastplate.
The feminist princess revolution that has sprouted from Belle and Tiana and Elsa and Anna and Merida has been one of the most heartening pop culture trends of an entire film epoch, but the insistence the Mouse House has been displaying in adapting and modernizing its back catalog (countdown to Emma Watson singing “Belle” begins now) seemed to promise a lot of theoretically interesting but poorly executed spins like 2014′s Maleficent. Grime. Violence. Spectacle (see how much we spent!). Unnecessary revisionism (the secret history of Aurora’s father!). Maleficent had a lot of fascinating moments, but not a one had to do with it being an adaptation of a treasured Disney property.
There are a lot of live-action versions of Disney classics on the release schedule, but no one was getting too excited about them. Branagh and James got people taking this trend seriously by playing things straight and staying immensely faithful to a film that, lest you need reminding, is mostly about the feud between a malevolent cat and a tribe of carefree mice.
But it’s such an elemental story, so baldly emotional. Done right, one, of course, can’t help but see why it’s one of history’s most enduring fables. Even today, we think of teams like UAB and Georgia State that surprise with their inspiring goodness as Cinderella teams. Lily James is a Cinderella team all her own, and a reminder that a Cinderella that casts a spell over you early can work wonders. Yes, she passively accepts abuse from her stepmother and stepsisters, but at this point, dinging a Cinderella adaptation for doing that is like complaining that Romeo and Juliet ends with a despondent Juliet taking her own life because she can’t live without her man. No it’s not progressive, but it always has the potential to be emotionally devastating.
The movie wisely keeps James front and center even though she is a virtual unknown. The stars, Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter, stay in their lanes while wearing delicious ensembles, providing seasoning on what proves to be a heaping helping of James heroically carrying the film on her back. A subplot dedicated to Richard Madden’s Prince Kit disobeying his father’s wishes adds a nice change of pace occasionally and ties in nicely thematically – the film’s hook is about being “kind,” and both its leads are that first and foremost, but nothing about the the script seems to be celebrating that Cinderella kept her mouth shut. If anything, we wish she’d spoken up sooner, for her own sake. Speaking up got her noticed by the prince, after all.
This film makes certain we’re aware this Cinderella isn’t looking for a prince to carry her away. She doesn’t know Kit is a prince (she thinks he’s an apprentice at the castle) and seems earnestly to want to see him again if only to have someone she enjoyed talking with back in her life again. In this, the film pretty blatantly swipes a beat from Ever After by having its lovebirds meet before the ball and by making sure we know the prince is impressed by our heroine’s pluck before he picks her out of the crowd.
In Ever After, Drew Barrymore’s Danielle was all the magic that film needed – she didn’t need a fairy godmother because she was firmly her own champion, and a champion of the people. Branagh strips away a good deal of that agency so he can bring the actual magic back – the kind with Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo and fairy dust – but he leaves a resilient girl in tact. His Cinderella will never be quite the feat that Ever After, a truly moralistic and magic-free parable for our day and age, was; but I am not immune to growing weak in the knees at the sight of real magic, and it must be said: if there is ever an inquisition into whether Sandy Powell is possessed of actual spellcasting abilities, I submit into evidence the dress so brilliant, it rivals Gravity for big-screen spectacle.