MOVIE REVIEW: Cinderella


Lovelier than a dream, this Kenneth Branagh directed Disney's CINDERELLA sets the bar for Oscars 2016 with sumptuous visual splendor complete with Haris Zambarloukos breathtaking cinematography, the lavish grandeur of Dante Ferretti's production design, Sandy Powell's timeless costume designs that sparkle and shine (literally and figuratively), and a sweeping score by Patrick Doyle, all befitting the crown jewel in the Disney legacy. Oh, and did I mention a certain Swarovski-designed glass slipper?

The first live action adaptation of a beloved animated Disney classic, in this glorious retelling and reimagination of Charles Perrault's fairy tale, Branagh and company sweep us into the world of make believe and fantasy while celebrating Charles Weitz' modernized strong and independent Ella, more commonly known to all as CINDERELLA.

As opined by director Branagh, "It's unusual with this film as you sit down and watch it and you realize that everybody in the audience knows what's going to happen; from the 5 year olds to the 95 year olds . . .it's not what's going to happen. It's 'how's he going to do it?'. Staying true to the core elements of the story, "the invitation cinematically - like the return from the ball, the clock strikes midnight - and all the fun you could have. . .was a lovely invitation" and feeling comfortable that he "would find the how", Branagh and his team believed that "we could deliver these moments and deliver them because they are classic moments." With the requisite touchstones of the Perrault story - young Ella losing her father, the introduction of the evil Stepmother and ridiculous ugly stepsisters - Branagh insures joy within the audience with joyous touches of Disney's 1950's animation like Cinderella's mouse "Gus Gus" and his little mouse family, Lucifer the cat, Mr. Goose, the pumpkin patch (albeit now inside a greenhouse which now bodes for some hilarious moments to showcase Helena Bonham Carter's comedic skills as Fairy Godmother) along with the ever present duo of bluebirds of happiness that pop in and out at significant moments.

Distinguishing this live action CINDERELLA from not only Disney's animated classic but the multiple other versions of the tale that have been cinematically told over the decades, is the strength and individuality of character development, most notably with Cinderella herself and the Prince, who now has a name for the first time - Kit. Scribe Chris Weitz elevates the spirit and character and the soul of Cinderella so that she is no longer "just waiting for a fella". She also loses the passiveness we have come to expect while garnering a deep understanding of why she stays and endures life with her stepmother and sisters. Keenly aware of the "Disney responsibility", Weitz and Branagh take the opportunity to create some pause for reflection in a story that can be influential to a new generation of young girls and boys and do so most successfully. According to Branagh, "There was a real sense that we wanted to say, 'It doesn't matter who you are or what you are. What you are and who you are is good enough, and so is everybody else's good enough.'"

Prince Kit also gets a modern spin as he is no longer relegated to looking handsome astride a mighty steed. Kit has backstory. He has not been sheltered in the palace. He has seen battle and come out the other side and, in a true revelation, Kit has established friendships with some of his men, particularly the Captain of the troops. The brotherly camaraderie and good-natured ribbing is refreshing, providing a well-rounded character rooted in the real world while easily fitting into the opulent and magical fantasy.

Casting is sublime starting with Lily James as CINDERELLA. With a captivating and engaging easy effortless generosity of spirit, James radiates a kindness and strength befitting this modern heroine - and yes, I say heroine for the independent spirit she exhibits to little girls today. With both an elegance and lovely tomboyish quality, James' authenticity equally resonates be she racing through the meadow on a horse or waltzing in a ballgown under 270 yards of fabric. It bears noting that James did all of her own horseback riding (and she had never ridden prior to CINDERELLA) and all of her own dancing.

Enchanting is the chemistry between James and Richard Madden's Prince Kit. The two fit together like two peas in a pod, complementing one another with equal strength and, let's face it, equal good looks. Madden exudes strength and command in his very stance, yet a loving tenderness in touching scenes with Derek Jacobi who plays his father, The King. Jacobi, always adding gravitas to any cinematic or theatrical proceeding does just that here.

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As mentioned above, a new layer to the Prince is his backstory of life and the friendships and respect Kit has among his men, most notably with his Captain. Long a favorite of mine, Nonso Anozie is a more than welcome as Captain. As we have seen from Anozie in other roles, beneath his hulking strong physique is humor and heart, both of which are on display here.

And then there's "Helly" as she is affectionately referred to by Branagh. Helena Bonham Carter is beyond fun as the Fairy Godmother. Allowed to play with the character and create a duality as both a poor beggar woman touched by Cinderella's kindness whose magic - although not always perfect - then kicks in, Bonham Carter delights with playful lightness! Almost gleeful in certain scenes, she also brings maternal touch to the performance as we see a winsome glance when Cinderella rides off to the ball in the golden coach. A real testament to her skills as an actress, Bonham Carter's physicality belies the weight of her opulent Marie Antoinette like costume, some 131 yards of fabric studded with over 10,000 Swarovski crystals overlaid on restrictive corsetting and a crinoline cage wired with 450 LED lights and multiple battery pacs under the dress. One look at her and you feel the magic.

But the real scene-stealer is Cate Blanchett. Deliciously oozing evil, thanks to razor-edged performance, icy vocal delivery and enunciation, and those ever-arching eyebrows, dressed with a nod to the fashions of 1940's screen goddesses, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich, Blanchett could every easily see herself listed among Oscars nominated Best Supporting Actresses come next February for her performance as Lady Tremaine. Blanchett is as powerful in presence as the opulent sets and posture-defining costuming and a welcome addition to the gallery of Disney villainesses.

Notable is Stellan Skarsgard as the manipulative Grand Duke who makes a perfect partner in crime to Blanchett's Tremaine while Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera are ridiculous fun as polka-dot garbed stepsisters Anastasia and Drisella, respectively.

Truly glorious is Patrick Doyle's fully orchestrated score which has a poetic lyricism laced with softness and sumptuousness. A timeless musical expression, expect Oscar to come knocking on Doyle's door as well. Key to the visual poetry of the film, the score plays throughout as a beautiful undercurrent. Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos then design the visuals in tandem with the lyricism of the scoring, capitalizing on sweeping crane shots that pan and swoop much like the little CGI bluebirds aloft on a summer wind, immersing the audience in a fully sensory experience. Electing to shoot on film (thank you very much, Ken Branagh!) as opposed to digital, and using anamorphic Panavision lenses, Branagh and Zambarloukos create a tangible lushness that harkens to the classics like "Gone With the Wind", "The Wizard of Oz", "The Age of Innocence" and, in the case of the sweeping shots, "Amelie". Excited by the "curious paradox" of the cinematic possibilities, Branagh succeeds in taking "a world of magic that had been in many people's minds a cartoon" and "mak[ing] it feel as real as possible."

Standout for Zambarloukos and Branagh are two scenes in particular - CINDERELLA entering the ballroom and the Fairy Godmother transforming a tattered pink dress into the Swarovski and butterfly encrusted blue costume masterpiece. In the first, the entrance is captured with a single camera pan what swirls around the ballroom giving both a slightly surreal voyeuristic POV and Cinderella's POV concurrently. It's a lovely - and difficult - move to execute so perfectly on both a visual and emotional scale. The latter involves a bit of CGI as the single 360 camera movement encircles CINDERELLA as she spins amidst a cloud of sparkles. Breathtaking, both.

Creating that reality required the construction of physical sets and thanks to production designer, Dante Ferretti, there was "no blue screen, no green screen." With baroquely styled opulence, the physical construction and meticulous design and attention to detail of each set is immersive. It doesn't take long for one's eye to try to see every little nook, cranny and detail of each room, from wallpaper pattern to sewing basket to dishware to floorboards. Obviously the centerpiece of the film is the ballroom which is a 360 degree construction, resulting in a feeling of actually being in the palace, being there, when the room is filled with the actors and extras. For Branagh, he took a "classical approach to it and so we looked for some of the classical tools in terms of the cinema game."

And then there's the costumes. . .and the "piece de resistance" - the glass slipper. Calling on the talents of costume designer Sandy Powell, as with the ballroom, the fashion centerpiece of the film is twofold; the blue ball gown and the glass slipper. Light in look (but with 270 yards of fabric and 10,000 Swarovski crystals), the ballgown wafts like a summer breeze as CINDERELLA waltzes and runs, giving the illusion that she is floating on air. Using a new polyester fabric she found called umisma, Powell describes it as being "like smoke" in the way it moves. Using different layers of soft pastel colors of umisma to create the water color effect we see on screen, the result is beauteous. Similarly, another showstopping costume is the white gown worn by Helena Bonham Carter whereas the 1940's inspired heavier satins and hats in emerald greens, golds and blacks that adorn Cate Blanchett stun. Even the men's costumes are perfection as Powell, focuses on a military look for all, adding multitudes of tiny Swarovski crystals that don't appear visible to the naked eye on screen, but which catch the set lights. Colors again are devoted to richer blues, greens and golds for the Prince and the palace, with Powell admitting to being taken by Richard Madden's "fabulous blue eyes" which meant everything designed for him "always had to have a bit of blue going on."

And then there's the glass slipper. A painstaking process, Branagh, the producers and Powell were determined to have a real glass slipper. Unfortunately, blown glass or cut glass didn't do the trick and weren't "doable." It was only on seeing a piece of chandelier-like crystal in a museum that Powell got the idea for a prismatically cut crystal shoe which led her to Swarovski. With neither Swarovski or Powell knowing whether or not the shoe could even be made, after many passes and design changes, "[we] finally, got the faceting down as fine as we possibly could so the shoe still retained an elegant shape." The result, as you will see on screen, is dazzling.

CINDERELLA. A new classic. A timeless treasure. A pantheon of visual delights plus the delights of romance, the passion and expression of love, the magic of the movies. Yes, if the shoe fits, wear it. The shoe definitely fits.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Written by Chris Weitz

Cast: Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgard


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