I’ve greatly missed the Shakespeare-maverick, period piece Kenneth Branagh. “Henry V”, “Much Ado About Nothing”…hey, even the ill-advised, “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, hold a place in my classical theatre heart. And 1996’s 4-hour, full text “Hamlet” feature, was a remarkable achievement. Seeing it at the Paris Theater in NYC that winter–was thrilling. But mass audiences didn’t care, and refused to go. Shakespeare…scary. So, over the last few years, the esteemed Mr. Branagh has sort-of become a Hollywood gun-for-hire. I found 2011’s blockbuster “Thor” tepid, but it raked in loads of cash. A couple of years later, Kenneth entered Tom Clancy territory, with “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”, which was far less successful. However, 2015 finds Branagh right back in his wheelhouse, with the lavish “Cinderella”. It’s his biggest box office hit, so far. And it’s not a bad watch either. In fact, at times it’s quite strong.
A little revisionist for this latest version–but we all know the drill here for the most part, right? Ella ( the on-the-verge of superstardom, Lily James) is orphaned at a young age, and doomed to an existence of being raised by her loving father’s, nasty, deceitful, second wife. Soon rechristened “Cinder”-Ella, by her nasty step sisters, based on her often sooty appearance, Ella is made to live in the attic by night, while being servant to her “family” by day. A chance, brief meeting with the prince of the kingdom she lives within, leads to the young man searching high-and-low for his “mystery” peasant girl. So, when he throws an extravagant castle ball, he decides to invite every eligible maiden in town, with the hope of finding her. And soon there are fairy godmothers, pumpkins becoming carriages, mice being changed into horses, and delicate glass slippers. Then the mystery girl arrives.
Helena Bonham Carter is the Fairy Godmother, and she’s in full ham mode here–but makes the most of it. Richard Madden is the handsome, dashing prince, and Branagh semi-regular Derek Jacobi is the dying King. But, unsurprisingly, Cate Blanchett is the standout as “evil” stepmother, Lady Tremaine. She stomps the scenery just enough to make things fun, and supplies just enough dignity and feeling for the character to supply for us why she is what she is. Blanchett shines, as always, in her learned nuance. Even when she’s bawdy, she’s graceful. And if Branagh is not able to bring us delightful Bard adaptations, at least he can still deliver by directing a costume drama fairy tale, like he’s done here. After his experience with “Thor”, he’s more comfortable with big effects studio work, and his hand is much more even here than it was for Marvel. It’s no wonder “Cinderella” was a hit–it works.