Image source: Disney
“Where there is kindness, there is goodness. Where there is goodness, there is magic.”
I took my daughter to her first real movie last weekend to see Disney’s new live action Cinderella starring Lily James. I was intrigued by the trailer, but once I heard that Kenneth Branagh was directing, I had very high hopes.
Any review will tell you that the film is visually stunning. And it’s true, Cinderella is absolutely breathtaking. The costuming and the sets are captivating and rich with detail. Every frame is dripping with beauty and a view of Wicked Stepmother Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe alone is worth the price of a movie ticket. But this new adaption of the beloved fairytale is more than a feast for the eyes.
Director Kenneth Branagh has a history of not ruining the classics. Even when he sets one of his many Shakespeare films in an unusual time period they still end up faithful to the story. His Much Ado About Nothing starring his ex-wife Emma Thompson is simply the last word on my favorite of the bard’s comedies. While the whole Branagh/Thompson split still bums me out (I mean, who doesn’t adore Emma Thompson?!), I cannot help but admire his directing and Cinderella confirms his ability to make a masterpiece out of a story we all know like the back of our hands.
The genius of this film is that is doesn’t try to blow our minds with twists and subversions of the original tale. It simply takes the story and brings it to life, letting the magic of the timeless plot speak for itself.
I like retellings like Ever After as much as the next girl (OK, much more than the next girl, I watched it last week), but there’s a reason the original fairytale is a classic. Branagh’s version added sparkle without trying to manipulate it into having more modern themes. And what Cinderella ends up being is a beautiful examination of the strength of virtue–a very unmodern theme.
Image source: Disney
While we spend only a few brief moments with Ella’s mother (Haley Atwell) her legacy haunts the whole film. The joy and love of their little family is what forms Ella into a young woman who can withstand abuse, neglect, and sorrow without losing her own dignity or compassion for others. It is this inner strength that makes her impossible to defeat with neglect, abuse, or cruelty.
As Ella’s young mother is dying, she tells her daughter, “Have courage, and be kind. For where there is kindness, there is goodness. And where there is goodness, there is magic.” And Ella grows to embody true kindness. She is not merely nice, she is kind, charitable, loving. Her kindness is a symptom of her goodness.
While Disney’s animated Cinderella is a character I never found likable (so much gasping!), Lily James manages to keep Cinderella from being silly or saccharine. The film highlights Ella’s innocence while not confusing it with ignorance or weakness. It is not that Ella never speaks up for herself or that she is unaware of the misery of her situation, but she is simply too strong to let herself stoop to revenge or bitterness. We have difficulty comprehending the strength of innocence. “No one is really good, but they can be too dumb to fight back” is what our culture likes to tell us.
Ella is reminiscent of A Little Princess’s Sara Crewe. It is not that Sara or Ella are too simple to see the cruel characters of those abusing them, but their inner strength of character refuses to violate itself by responding in kind or by shutting out life and love for others.
I’m reminded of Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore who never fails to speak with impeccable politeness to others, even the despicable Death Eaters who have cornered him with murderous intent. Yes, he knows they plan to kill him. Yes, they do not deserve his respect. But it is not merely for them that he maintains an irreproachable manner, it is for himself. His self-respect is stronger than his humiliation. He knows that although they can kill him, he still holds the cards as long as he is brave, kind, and self-sacrificing. As long as we follow Ella’s mother’s exhortation to be courageous and kind, we always hold the cards.
While she is wounded by the cruelty of her stepmother and stepsisters and at times defies them, Ella sees them for what they are–women trapped by their own selfishness. Ella, on the other hand, is free to love and to light up the world around her.
And this love and compassion for others is the catalyst for the supernatural enchantment in Cinderella. When Ella has been humiliated and abused as her stepmother and stepsisters tear her mother’s dress and leave her behind for the ball we see Ella truly wretched. But it only takes the request of old beggar woman asking her for some bread or milk to bring her out of her own grief into compassion for someone else. She quickly stops thinking of herself and busies herself finding buttermilk for the woman to drink. This act of charity transforms the old woman into her fairy godmother and the magic begins.
Image source: Disney
Or rather, the enchantment of the pumpkins and mice into a carriages and horses begins. The magic has been working in Ella from the start–giving her the bravery to choose joy. Her situation is so tragic that we would not judge her for sinking into misery, but she refuses to shut out joy. Two painful losses of beloved parents, daily neglect and abuse, and then possibly losing her chance for love and happiness cannot break her.
When the prince (and props for making him neither a spoiled whiner or a rake she has to reform, but a man genuinely worthy of her from the very start) finds her locked in the attic by her wicked stepmother, it is because he can hear her singing. We can write it off as unrealistic, or we can be inspired by the courage it takes to fight for joy in the midst of our unhappiness.
I was surprised (pleasantly) that this version didn’t attempt to make Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother sympathetic, but let her be evil. While her circumstances may give her cause for disappointment in life, her cruelty has no excuse. When confronted by Ella about why she abuses her, the stepmother explains, “Because you are young, and innocent, and good…” It’s hard to imagine an evil figure in real life answering with such honesty, but this is a story in which lizards become footmen and enchanted geese drive carriages. And the response is very honest. We hate the things that remind us that we are not what we were meant to be. We hate the people who embody what we have failed to become.
While it’s very satisfying to watch Ever After’s Cinderella doom her wicked stepmother to the same ill-treatment she received (“All I ask, Your Majesties… is that you show her the same courtesy that she has bestowed upon me”) her fair judgement is not the same as forgiveness. Lily James’ Cinderella cannot be burdened with punishing or seeking vengeance. As she walks out of her house with her prince and her glass slipper, she looks over her shoulder at her stepmother and says merely, “I forgive you” as Blanchett sinks to the floor in defeat.
Ella’s forgiveness doesn’t seem to be an attempt to comfort her still unremorseful stepmother, but instead a purging of any seeds of hatred that have no place in her own soul. When we hate, we most deeply hurt ourselves and Ella is too wise to be a slave to bitterness.
Image source: Disney
Charity has power. This is the moral of all good tales, whether it’s the simple faithfulness of Samwise Gamgee being the salvation of Middle Earth, the self-sacrifice of Aslan breaking the evil enchantments of the White Witch, or Lily Potter’s mark of maternal love that makes her son untouchable. We see Cinderella’s mother’s love fill Ella with goodness, and courage that sustain her through anything life may throw at her.
I just can’t wait to see it again.
Have you seen it yet? What did you think?