Cinderella (2015)

When I went out to see the new Walt Disney Cinderella film directed by Kenneth Branagh (PG, 2015), I expected to see a lot of the typical revisionist themes that are common in remakes of fairy tales: a darker, edgier Cinderella; maybe a Cinderella who fights or knows martial arts; a new, imaginary villain perhaps; a more feminist, aggressive Cinderella at the expense of Prince Charming, who would be dumbed down and made into a buffoon - and of course, a mauling of the story line to replace the traditional virtues of faith, hope and the role of grace with some sort of modernish "believe in yourself." We have all seen these sorts of mutilations before; there are a million and one ways this film could have gone bad - it is a miracle that Cinderella avoided all of these pitfalls.

That's right. This movie contains none of these modern canards. Remarkably faithful to the Walt Disney 1950 original animated classic, director Kenneth Branagh has aptly demonstrated that it is very possible to make a movie faithful to traditional motifs that succeeds at the box office.

The lead role is played by Lily James, a British actress whom I have never heard of but starred in some show called Downton Abbey which I also know nothing about but which apparently has zillions of fans. James does excellently as Cinderella: humble, modest, forgiving, cheerful. It really would have been easy for Branagh to turn Cinderella into an anti-hero - to make her "darker" and rob her of her innocent joy, kind of like what has happened to Hollywood depictions of Robin Hood over the years. But Branagh stays true to the canon and we get a portrayal of Cinderella that is full of goodness, joy, innocence and forgiveness.

Throughout the film, it is the moral goodness of Cinderella that drives the story. "Have courage and be kind" define her character. This is much better than the wishy-washy "believe in yourself" motif we are constantly spoon fed; at least courage and kindness are objective habits. Even so, we do not get a Cinderella who is perfectly sanitized and always in some Pollyana-bubble of imperturbable happiness. Yes, she practices joy and goodness, but we really see that this entails a great struggle. Dare I say, we really see that such persistent joy requires mortification. Our nature makes it hard to be charitable; hard, but not impossible. It is so wonderful to see a protagonist struggling to be good and succeeding.

But of course, our own efforts can only take us so far. Following the traditional scene where the Stepmother (played by Cate Blanchett) and the stepsisters tear up the dress that belonged to Cinderella's mother, Cinderella collapses in tears, crying out that she no longer has the strength to be courageous and cheerful. And that's when the Fairy Godmother appears, who represents the power of grace building on nature. Nature builds the foundation, but grace makes possible what nature alone could not aspire to.

I personally believe this story is really about this interplay between grace and nature; we do the right hing, employing all our strength, and a little bit of "magic" (i.e., grace) takes what we have built and elevates it, even bringing us into the family of the King and allowing us to be espoused to him. In the end, Cinderella is taken by the prince as she is, with no magic - but it is the presence of the glass slipper that allows the Prince to recognize her. A special "mark" that allows God to recognize His people is a very common theme in Christian theology, whether in confirmation, the Exodus, or what have you.

I have to say, while we are all familiar with the Cinderella story line, I had forgotten how beautiful this tale actually is. It took Branagh depicting it from a fresh perspective to really liven it up for me. The perspective is fresh, but the heart of the story is the same; as I said, it is remarkably similar to the 1950 classic. Cinderella is humble and happy. Prince Charming is charming. The Stepmother is cruel and scheming. The stepsisters and jealous buffoons. Yes, these are one-dimensional characters, but these tropes lend the story a great strength because they allows us to easily understand the dynamic.

A few times I came close to tears because of how beautiful this story is. Its a story of redemptive suffering, and there is a powerful moment of forgiveness at the end. It was a nice experience; kind of like seeing the traditional tale for the first time.

The casting was wonderful; I don't know anything about Lily James but she did wonderfully. There were very strong supporting roles from Cate Blanchett, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham-Carter and more. There were many nods to the 1950 classic; even Gus-Gus and Lucifer are there.

Not surprisingly, those mainstream critics who disliked the movie did so particularly because of its fidelity to the tradition. One progressive windbag lamented that Cinderella did not follow in the foot steps of other progressive revisionist fairy-tale films. He said, "While it might have been nice to see the new-model Cinderella follow Frozen 's progressive, quasi-feminist lead, the film's naff, preserved-in-amber romanticism is its very charm."[1] At least he admitted the movie had great charm, even if "preserved-in-amber."

But I didn't find it preserved in amber. Goodness is powerful. This is what Cinderella's mother tells her before she dies, and throughout the film we see this theme stressed again and again. It doesn't matter what they do. You be faithful to what you know to be the truth - and persevere in love and kindness, even if it hurts. Your pain will be redemptive in the end. 

Hollywood so rarely gets it right. When it does, it deserves to be rewarded; maybe they will see that there are a reason the traditional stories have stayed with us so long and return to these forms. I give Cinderella three tiaras. Go see it. And kudos to Kenneth Branagh for his excellent retelling of this classic.


[1]  Lodge, Guy (February 13, 2015). "Cinderella review – Kenneth Branagh's perky, pretty cupcake of a fairytale"