Kenneth Branagh, who directs the upcoming adaptation of Cinderella, made his name as a director with his adaptations of Shakespeare — most notably, Henry V and Hamlet; films that garnered seven Academy Award nominations between them. After Hamlet — a critical success, though not a financial one – Branagh floundered a bit, directing another Shakepeare adaptation, Love’s Labour’s Lost, then The Magic Flute, followed by yet another Shakespeare work, As You Like It. These three movie grossed under $3 million … combined. Then, after 2007’s Sleuth, Branagh wouldn’t direct another movie until 2011.
Of course, that 2011 movie was Thor. It’s easy to forget now, but everyone expected Thor to be terrible. Remember, this was only the fourth Marvel Studios film and only the second that didn’t star Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. And the last film that didn’t star Downey, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, was considered a disappointment. Then, after the release of some not-so-great-looking set photos, the Internet exploded in mockery. Thor was doomed. Well, except, as we know now, Thor wasn’t doomed, and the Branagh-directed film went on to gross just under half a billion dollars worldwide and, to the surprise of everyone, honest to goodness positive reviews. Branagh seemed fully equipped to direct a film that was steeped in popular culture as opposed to Shakespeare — which he followed up with the pretty OK reboot, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
Having said all that, maybe it’s not too surprising that if you combine the elegant aspects of Branagh’s Shakespeare love with one of the most famous fairy tales of all time, you get something that, in less competent hands, should have been something that no one over the age of seven would enjoy. Or, it’s so dripping with irony (like last year’s Into the Woods), that it’s tripping over itself in self-loathing. Instead, Branagh has brought us an irony-free telling of Cinderella that is heartfelt and wonderful.
Now, just because there’s a lack of irony doesn’t mean there’s a lack of mugging it up for the camera; Cate Blanchett mugs her way through the entire film as Cinderella’s stepmother, Lady Tremaine – and seems to be having a glorious time while doing so.
I assume I don’t need to summarize the story of Cinderella here? Right? Though, there are some slight changes to the story, but the gist is the same. Ella (Lily James) lives a happy life with her parents. A few years after the death of her mother (Hayley Atwell), Ella’s father (Ben Chaplin) marries Lady Tremaine, a woman who brings her two terrible daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) to live with Ella and her father. Soon after, Ella’s father passes away, and Lady Tremaine and her two daughters turn Ella (now nicknamed Cinderella after Ella sat down to dinner with cinders on her face) into their personal servant.
Soon, Ella has a chance meeting with Kit (Richard Madden), a prince, though Kit hides that fact from Ella and just tells her he works as an apprentice at the palace. So, yes, after an encounter with a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter who, sadly, isn’t in this movie very long), Cinderella attends the palace ball, but it’s to look for this mysterious apprentice, not the prince like everyone else is doing (even though she’s actually there looking for the prince).
There’s something so, let’s say, old-fashioned about Cinderella that it makes it feel lively and new. Again, this is the kind of story that’s just kind of screaming “make fun of me” or “make me a new dark and twisted tale,” because people love “dark.” It’s so fortunate that everyone resisted this temptation.
It’s almost too easy to make a parody of Cinderella. What’s tough is to do is create a film this earnest and this lovely – everything from the performances to the set design to the costumes – that will play to the cynics of 2015. (I count myself as a cynic of 2015.) Somehow, and I am as surprised as anyone, Cinderella’s earnest adaptation won me over. I was (forgive me) enchanted. And I suspect only a director like Kenneth Branagh, with his particular resume, could pull such a thing off.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.