Cinderella bursts into glorious life on the big screen and it's an enchanting masterwork from legendary filmmaker Kenneth Branagh.
A live-action feature inspired by the classic fairy tale, Disney's Cinderella brings to life the beloved characters and timeless images from the studio's 1950 animated masterpiece in a visually dazzling spectacle for a whole new generation. Bringing a fairy-tale character like Cinderella to cinemas in today's unpredictable marketplace was a formidable challenge, but the filmmakers were determined not to compromise or make any substantial changes to the heart of the story. Like any cherished classic, Cinderella has a loyal and adoring audience, and one that is all too familiar with the signature moments from Disney's landmark film.
It's a spectacular cinematic experience for anyone who needs an invigorating injection of magic, romance and storytelling at its best.
The success of any film depends on its casting and, with Cinderella, Branagh made a wise choice to cast mostly television stars in the lead roles. Lily James (best known for her role as Lady Rose in the hit television series Downton Abbey) and Scottish actor Richard Madden (best known for his compelling performance as Robb Stark in Game of Thrones) are perfectly cast as Cinderella and the Prince; the chemistry between them is electrifying and results in an emotional experience of first love at its most endearing.
For James, the opportunity to play one of the world's most celebrated and best-loved characters was a dream come true. She explains: "I liked the fact that Ken wanted to keep it light and magical, much like a fairy tale. And in addition to the fact that Cinderella is so special and kind and unique, we also had a great opportunity to create a whole life beyond the fairy tale, making it richer and giving each character its own specific back-stories." She continues: "The heart of the story is Ella's strength and how, even under the cruellest of circumstances, she manages to maintain goodness, purity and positivity."
Posture, grace and elegance
To prepare for the film, James tried to live healthily, implementing a daily yoga routine to get the kind of posture, grace and elegance that Ella would have had. She also took horseback riding lessons for six weeks, and did a great deal of research on spirituality, reading up on great leaders and pacifists like Gandhi.
"I wanted to make Ella seem as real as possible, but didn't want her to appear as if she had no faults because I was afraid the audience wouldn't relate to her if she was too perfect," James says.
For the role of the Prince, Madden responded enthusiastically to the material. He was eager to take on the dashing and thoughtful Kit, the bright young man who initially conceals his true identity from Ella. He was thrilled to find that the Prince was not the shallow, one-dimensional character people remember from the animated film, but someone who audiences could actually believe Ella would fall in love with.
Madden says: "Ken and I had numerous discussions about young rulers and how they would relate to more traditional views of their elders. The Prince wants to do what is best for the kingdom, but he has his own fresh ideas and philosophies as to how things should work."
In discussing his character's relationship with Ella, Madden says: "There's a great deal of humour in their relationship, even though it's a period film. It feels so much more modern in terms of how they connect with each other."
Connecting as human beings
In the film, the Prince and Ella don't know anything about one another when they first meet, so it has nothing to do with him being a Prince or her being a peasant girl, but rather them connecting as human beings.
James says: "The Prince actually learns a lot from Cinderella, in fact. And the character has been written very cleverly in the sense that you see that she's challenged the way he thinks so that he is willing to question the king."
Adds Branagh: "The performances of both Lily James and Richard Madden have intelligence, depth and complexity in the way they react to things, in the way they carry themselves, in the way they present a weight of thought. These are people who we sense feel deeply, but they also have enormous capacity for fun and kindness."
"This is a story where kindness is a superpower, which is something Ken and I talked about early on that I found really exciting," says Blanchett. "Plus, I have three boys, so I'm aware of all the films out there that have male superheroes at the fore, so I was thrilled to be part of the telling of a female-centric story."
Full-blooded in its execution
Not wanting the Stepmother to be totally unsympathetic, Blanchett embodied the role with wit and emotion, giving a performance that was full-blooded in its execution, while still offering little nuances that alluded to her pain within.
"We wanted to show audiences that this character did have genuine and reasonable goals," says Branagh. "For instance, wanting to have a life that was taken care of from a financial point of view and a happy future for her daughters are understandable goals, although the way she goes about securing it is unusual and excessive."
Holliday Granger (who played the lead role of Lucrezia Borgia in the series The Borgias) and Sophie McShera (also from the series Downton Abbey), are a laugh riot as Cinderella's stepsisters Anastasia and Drisella, with Helena Bonham Carter at her best as the Fairy Godmother.
For years, Walt Disney Studios has been interested in bringing Cinderella back to the big screen, to reintroduce the timeless tale to a 21st-century audience and build on the nostalgia and memories cherished by millions around the world. Of utmost importance, the film needed to be entertaining and bring as much fun and humanity to the fairy-tale characters as possible, while preserving the unforgettable elements from the animated classic.
Director Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Thor) had never toyed with the idea of directing a fairy tale before, but after reading the script by screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy), found that the story spoke to him in ways he never imagined.
"I was captivated by the power of the story and felt I was in sync with the visual artistry that was being developed," Branagh says. "It's a classic piece of storytelling where the central character goes on a journey that we can really identify with, so the texture and landscape of a great story was wonderful to play with as a director."
In order to make the film relevant to modern audiences, it was this core of kindness and compassion that would be fundamentally important. And the filmmakers were convinced that the powerful story, combined with an exceptionally talented cast and a strong script with more complex and realistic characters, would make for a truly entertaining cinematic experience.
"The thing for us was not to try too hard to reimagine things, but to go by the lights of the story as we saw it-a world of hidden wonder and beauty, with the animating force of kindness and faith at the heart of it," says Weitz.
Origins date back to the 1st century
For most, the enduring story came to life with the beloved animated film in 1950, but its origins date back to the 1st century and the Egyptian tale Rhodopis by the Greek historian Strabo, which is considered the earliest known version of the story on record. In 1697, Charles Perrault's French interpretation of the tale entitled Cendrillon, or the History of the Little Glass Slipper was published, which introduced the fairy godmother, the pumpkin carriage and the glass slippers.
The Grimm Brothers' take on the story, Aschenputtel, which came out in Germany in 1812, featured a wishing tree that grows on her mother's grave in place of a fairy godmother and set forth a much darker tone, but it is Perrault's adaptation that is most similar to Disney's. Since then there have been countless incarnations of the story across all forms of media, from print, film and television to stage, music and art.
The task of writing a screenplay that would deftly balance the essence of the animated film while making the characters more appealing and relevant was placed in the skilled hands of screenwriter Chris Weitz. Like Branagh, Weitz is also an accomplished actor (Chuck & Buck), producer (A Single Man) and director (A Better Life, The Golden Compass), and was intrigued with the prospect of expanding the story to give audiences a glimpse into the backgrounds and motivations of each character.
The filmmakers wanted to deliver something akin to the classic family entertainment that Disney is known for, while being mindful of the fact that families are different today than they were in the golden age of the studio. Shearmur explains: "This is more about telling the story from the inner journeys and the inner worlds of each character, rather than just the visual aspect of it all. But it was also important that the screenplay remain faithful to the original animated film."
Not a revisionist version
"We're not doing a revisionist version of Cinderella," says Weitz. "She does what the character did in the fairy tale, but in order to modernise her for today's audience we decided to have the same heroine whose virtue is really in her ability to maintain her good nature and her character in spite of a lot of suffering, which is what she goes through."
The screenplay was written with scenes showing Ella as a child with her mother and father, focusing on the picturesque life she shared with her loving parents in beautiful surroundings before her mother died. It is in these scenes where we see how Ella comes to understand the concept of having courage and being kind, as witnessed from her parents, which she takes with her throughout the film.
Another new concept addressed in the screenplay is the notion of choosing who we spend the rest of our lives with, and in the original classic the characters didn't have much of an opportunity to do so. As a result, Weitz came up with the idea of having Ella and the Prince meet earlier on in the story and not realise who the other person is so as to experience the views about life that they share.
Another addition to the film is the glimpses of information provided in the story that offer clues as to why the Stepmother is the way that she is. She's not just a villain, and she's not just cruel - it actually goes much deeper than that.
A respectable appearance
The Stepmother prides herself on maintaining a respectable appearance, home and well-bred daughters, putting a great deal of importance on what others think of her. But her emotional pain deepens when she realises that her new husband will always think of Ella's mother-not her-as the love of his life, and intensifies when her second chance at love is lost. At the same time, she comes to realise the vast differences between Cinderella and her girls, which infuriates her even more.
Adds Weitz: "It was really important from the start that the Stepmother has something to say for herself. Not only does she have her own share of pain and suffering in her past, but she is quite charming and seductive as well."
The Stepmother also schemes with the Grand Duke, the cunning and pragmatic ally of the royal family, which was another element of the screenplay that was nurtured from the original classic. The Grand Duke believes marriage is nothing more than a business arrangement and that the Prince should marry someone politically valuable to the royal family. He feels it is his duty to prevent the Prince from finding and marrying Cinderella, and teams up with the Stepmother to make sure it does not happen.
"We set out to provide a satisfying and unironic version of Cinderella, but within that context there are all sorts of bells and whistles and interesting questions we addressed," says Chris Weitz.
Adds Kenneth Branagh: "It all goes back to this idea of Cinderella's basic humanity informing the whole piece. It has the fun, but it also has the heart."
Daniel Dercksen has been a contributor for Lifestyle since 2012. As the driving force behind the successful independent training initiative The Writing Studio and a published film and theatre journalist of 40 years, teaching workshops in creative writing, playwriting and screenwriting throughout South Africa and internationally the past 22 years. Visit www.writingstudio.co.za