A Wish Your Heart Makes, by David Bax
Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is not a reinvention of the classic fairytale. While it contains minor tweaks that bring welcome repercussions, it’s an essentially straightforward telling. That simplicity, though, has a profundity in it and its core message, to “have courage and be kind,” as Cinderella’s mother implores her, is taken seriously enough to have a meaningful impact.
You know the plot. A young orphan is pressed into servitude by her stepmother and shallow stepsisters but is granted one perfect evening with a prince by her fairy godmother. The familiarity of these story beats is given new life by the intricate production design of Dante Ferreti and the lush costumes of Sandy Powell.
Powell’s work, in particular, brings into focus the central conflict between Cinderella (Lily James) and her stepmother (Cate Blanchett). Billowing Victorian dresses mark Cinderella and her parents (before they both die) as pure, while the structured Edwardian frocks and hairstyles of the stepmother and her daughters represent shallow vice and excess.
Lest the symbology of the design become too dry and academic an affair, the score, by Patrick Doyle, has a beautiful longing in it. Cinderella’s desire to be accepted as she is, despite her spruced up gown and carriage, comes through in the way the each note yearns toward the next.
Branagh and his collaborators clearly put a lot of fruitful effort into the design and aesthetics of their Cinderella but the film is not a superficial one. All of the work is leveled toward a common goal, that of making Cinderella the character as sympathetically human as possible. James’ performance is spot-on. She keeps Cinderella from being a clockwork martyr, allowing us to see the hurt and anger and jealousy flitting across her face and body before remembering her mother’s guiding words. And while the magical events and exploits of the tale aren’t immediately relatable, Branagh connects them to reality with bits of sly allegory. Cinderella’s first dance with the Prince feels like it might be a metaphor for the loss of virginity. Her sharp gasp when he takes her by the hip all but confirms it.
In all sorts of ways just like these, Branagh and his classicist impulses work to rediscover the simple powers of this creaky old tale. No, Cinderella is not a reinvention but the story feels more exciting than it has in ages. And there’s nothing wrong with reminding ourselves what can be achieved when we have courage and be kind.