Nearly twenty years ago, I settled down to watch Kenneth Branagh's unabridged adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. I'd only ever read Hamlet in its entirety and getting comfy, I settled in for the four hours of what turned out to be one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. Branagh shot the film on 70mm, a nearly dead film format thankfully getting a revival recently with the likes of The Master, Interstellar and the upcoming The Hateful Eight. Branagh's Hamlet is utter gorgeous to look at and the cast, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet and appearances by Robin Williams, Dicky Attenborough and Jack Lemmon among others, are on top form. Alex Thomson's (of John Borman's Excalibur and Ridley Scott's Legend fame) camera uses every millimetre of the frame to great effect, capturing the opulence and the squalor that only nestle in great adaptations of Hamlet.
So why am I prattling on about a film that is older than most of the audience of Branagh's live action take on Disney's 1950 crown jewel, Cinderella? Well, frankly, there are moments in Cinderella that blow me away the same way Hamlet did. If I need to explain the story of Cinderella to you, well, you're in the wrong place. The basic plot is exactly the same as the 1950 animated classic, with a few added flourishes. Chris Weitz's screenplay adds depth to his Ella, Downton Abbey's Lilly James, building our princess-to-be's relationship with her mother, a fleeting appearance by the ever perfect Hayley Atwell, and her father the Merchant, played by Ben Chaplin, before going on to hit all the marks we've been waiting for. The genius of the approach Weitz and Branagh take on Cinderella is that they know everyone is expecting something specific, those magic moments from the story we have all grown up with. But before they give us those moments, they give us beats, opportunities with the characters that give Ella more heart than you would expect and Prince Kit, Game of Thrones' Richard Madden, an actual character to play with. But, as these things go, the villain always gets the best bit.
Casting Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine, the evil stepmother, is a stroke of genius. Blanchett is, in this humble writers opinion, our last link to the real stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Blanchett, when given a role like Lady Tremaine, channels the greats, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis and Ava Gardner and commands our attention on screen. We see what we so rarely see these days, a true an utter Star. Given slightly more play with than the animated Lady Tremaine, every scene Blanchett is in puts Ella in her place in the attic. Blanchett provides a depth to Lady Tremaine that is heartbreaking, but with the envious glare required of the Evil Stepmother. Tremaine's daughters, played with gusto by Sophie McShera and ever lovely Holliday Grainger, provide the counter point to James' Ella, but James and Blanchett provides the heart and surprising depth to their scenes together. Lilly James floats through the film as Ella and her scenes with Madden are cute, playful and, that phrase again, full of heart. Even if the film breaks the rule set in Frozen, you cannot marry someone you just met. Oh, Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother? There isn't a box or tick big enough for the five minutes we get of her.
But, as well thought out, conceived, directed and performed the characters are, there are shots in Cinderella that made me want to cheer. Just before the ball, the servants in the palace are running around putting the finishing touches to everything, including the chandeliers, as Branagh's cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos' camera swoops around, the chandeliers lift from the dance floor an rise around you. It is a beautiful moment and one that announces that THAT dance is about happen. The other moments that pop to mind are the confrontation in the attic between Ella and Lady Tremaine and Kit's final moments with his father, Derek Jacobi's King. They stick in my mind and still make me smile at their perfection.
With that in mind, is it a perfect film? Not at all, but it has a huge heart that allows you to forgive the mostly paper thin plotting and supporting cast. The fact every scene is jaw droppingly beautiful in its detail helps. Ellie and I toured the Cinderella Exhibition after seeing the film. The dresses and, of course, those shoes, are even more impressive in person. Disney has spent huge amounts of money on acquisitions recently, Marvel and Lucasfilm for example, so mining the archives for their greatest hits is a no brainer from a financial standpoint. With live action Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo in production, we can expect more of this sort of thing. If they are to succeed, they need to keep a copy of Cinderella close to hand because it is everything a jaded, 35 year old film geek and his now not so little princess, wanted and so much more.