Review: Cinderella

Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is in a curious bind, right form its get-go. The appeal of the film is clear: in an age of revisionist blockbusters halfheartedly attempting to find some new slant on a classic story, even a desperately bad one, Branagh’s vision is remarkably old-school and pure. Fair enough; I like a classical story as much as the next person. But classical is not an excuse for lazy, and Cinderella veers so close to being wholly and entirely indifferent that it’s almost a travesty of cinemagic, although nice little touches shine through until the end, keeping the film afloat. As it stands though, Branagh’s vision is cannibalized by the very fact that ought to save it: its insistence on its origins in fable, its classical myth-like quality free of airs that ought to make it devoutly timeless. As it is, the classical quality just barely turns it into a milquetoast Oscar production, and nothing is more boring than a film using old Hollywood styles without any idea how to translate their  magic to the screen.

Admittedly, the problem with Cinderella isn’t merely that it is old-school. A truly mythic work, a film of storybook demeanor that casually shows off its mastery of visual and aural splendors, is a treat in this day and age, as it would be in any. In an alternate reality, Cinderella lets loose with Disney-certified magic and the spirit of a born storyteller, roiling through delicious line-readings with theatrical zest and indulging in some of the finest landscapes and production details money can buy. That would be a worthwhile film with a perspective, the perspective of classical filmmaking and untamed presentational wildness. Cinderella doesn’t ever get there. It feels more like the rough idea of a classical Cinderella than the truth of one, but none of the details are filled in. It’s the equivalent of a storyteller rushing through the story in monotone, forgetting that the point is not in the story itself but the telling, the boastful hand gestures and exasperated energy in the wordplay. As it is, Cinderella just sort of blindly exists on camera without distinction.

This doesn’t mean it’s all bad. Parts of the film certainly look great, although I’m not convinced Branagh uses the cinematography to its fullest potential, leaving the film looking a touch antiseptic when it really ought to floor in stills. Sandy Powell, on break from her residency with Scorsese until his next film comes to fruition, is absolutely on top form in the costuming department, and she is hands down best in show of the production in a depressingly easy contest (an adaptation of Cinderella really should be a tooth-and-nail fight-to-the-death for best single production element). Nor does the film look bad per-se; it’s simply that there is so much potential in the material that the largely static, uninspired film seems all the worse in comparison.

The story isn’t even told particularly negligently. Again, like the rest of the film, it just sort of “is” without drifting off too much in either direction. There are some nice touches, like the subtle nuances in Lady Tremaine’s mood captured in the script and pacified through her outfits and Blanchett’s superior performance as the villainous step-mother. Blanchett, by the way, really does wonders with the character, curbing down the snarly menace without sacrificing the essential hostility of the character, and all the while selling us on her soul whilst retaining the character’s bold, theatrical, caustic, almost bile-spewing facial expressions that remind that this is a figure built up on her public performance, her surface-level expressions that tell a tale all their own. She lets just enough of the character’s core bubble to the surface to hint at darker truths lying in wait under her waxworks external character, and this is absolutely perfect for a figure trying to cope with hidden conflict while also maintaining a public demeanor of confidence.

Back to the story though, for outside of the nuances to her character, there isn’t much. It isn’t bad per-se, for it is so safe and corporate and divested and scrubbed clean of vision and idiosyncrasy that it could never really be notably bad. It plays out exactly like you’d expect, largely indifferently and without passion, and the minor changes to the Prince to complicate him really don’t do much of anything to sand down the reductionist story and its unmitigated support for traditional aristocracy, not to mention its torrid implications for gender. Everything else is …tepid is the word, fully functional in the basic understandings of cinema and art as far as framing and blocking are concerned, but there’s never anything exceptional or even notable on display from beginning to end. The largely indifferent acting, Blanchett aside, certainly doesn’t help pursue a larger-than-life presence, and if the film wants to go for realism – which is a bad decision to begin with because the story as written isn’t worthwhile from a realist perspective – it doesn’t do much with it. It feels trapped in this unsure region where it is vaguely, sort of magical but not in any specifically empowering way.

At least it basically books through the story, ending before it can grow tiring. But if the best thing to say about a movie is that it is “not too long that it becomes actively bad”, then that’s not exactly a must-see commitment. It’s totally fine for the indiscriminate viewer, but Branagh can do better. This is a movie, remember, and too often it seems like a theater play, without all of the luxuries and freedoms a camera and other faculties of cinema allow, regurgitated out onto the screen. It is undemanding and vaguely entertaining without ever being passionately so, and that’s totally fine and inoffensive cinematically if not morally (still, it feels vaguely reductionist without ever committing to anything offensive, because that would require passion on its part, and “vague” is the order of the day with this film in particular). Blanchett it always there perking everything up, but for all her majesty, she alone is not enough to save something that seems mostly bored to exist.

Score: 6/10 (a whole point or two for Blanchett propping up the sides of the film with actorly gusto)

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