Cinderella is a fairy tale, through and through. It exists in a world where parents are not called Mum and Dad but Mother and Father. It has mice who know how to work together to open a window. It has magic pumpkins, and lizards that turn into strange men. There’s the prince, and the wicked villains. There are horses and all sorts of other animals, and a forest of romantic wonders. And there is, of course, Cinderella, the embodiment of all that is good and pure. She stands at the very centre of this new Cinderella movie, a live-action version of an old story and a treasured Disney animation.
She is the key to this movie’s success, which even on its better days might find it difficult to impress the most thorough Disney aficionado. It doesn’t push for new ground with the material, nor does it try to steer the story in a different direction. It plays out as we’d expect and arrives at a conclusion that’s jolly and satisfying even though the journey that brings it there is far more rewarding.
Cinderella is played by Lily James, in a performance that I think is crucial in an entirely understated way. Cinderella’s primary trap for her audience is sympathy. She’s a pathetic, down-trodden little girl who’s lost everything in life and has to cling miserably to the vacant niceties of her wicked step-mother. In the animated movie, Cinderella was always in the company of creatures that loved and adored her, particularly the little mice that scampered around and knew how to sew. They helped make her ball gown. They brought her the key to unlock the attic door. They were cute and funny, and I liked Gus the glut. In this film, the mice are wisely mice. They are not anthropomorphic, even though they display slight hints of human capabilities. They keep Cinderella company, but they are not her companions.
This works for the girl, because she is truly alone, and James pinches at the right nerves in moments of utter desperation when she has no one to talk to. Consider the scene where word arrives of her father’s death away from home, and it dawns very quietly on James’ face that now she has to suffer her step-mother and step-sisters unaided. This would have been the perfect chance for James to overact, but her stillness works better. She is not so much sad for her father as for herself, and for the state that her beloved family home will become.
It is pointless for me to outline the plot, because it has been tried and tested, and if you are not familiar with Cinderella’s story what you need is a time machine. What glues the parts together are the performances by the actors, which tread very carefully between camp and drama.
Richard Madden plays the prince, and he is at once a genuine fellow who admires Cinderella for her unusual concern for animals and the land. Cate Blanchett is cold and steely as the wicked step-mother, but she, like Cinderella, is betrayed by a dreadful past and is not all she presents herself to be. And Stellan Skarsgård plays a royal advisor whose advice is not so regal. They are delectable characters.
If I had my wish, I would’ve liked to have seen less visual effects and more of the drama played out between the characters. The obligatory scene with the Fairy Godmother is inevitable, I suppose, and Helena Bonham Carter, though not exactly made of the stuff of Fairy Godmothers, is at least buoyant. But the stories of all these people and the unwavering cheerfulness of Lily James is what grabbed me, not the bright colours and the sparkles. Those, I think, can be reserved for the children.
Something has always bugged me about the Cinderella story. Her dress, her carriage, her footmen, her glass slippers have all been conjured by magic. At midnight the magic subsides and all is as they were. She returns to the rags and matted hair. Her horses become mice again. Her lovely pumpkin carriage shrivels up. Somehow, her glass slippers remain, because they are pretty, and the prince, completely infatuated, picks one up. Here’s a thought: What if she left a raggedy old sandal instead?
Best Moment | The ease with which Lily James seethes beneath her smile, or tears, and draws you in so completely.
Worst Moment | The very odd, frankly frightening lizard footmen who bring Cinderella to the ball. Why not just make them ordinary human begins?