Kenneth Branagh chooses to begin the story with Cinderella’s childhood and has the heroine suffer her parents’ death and the humiliation of going from owner of the house to unpaid servant. Screenwriter Chris Weitz clearly couldn’t conceive, let alone write, Cinderella’s moral strength and undying hope for redemption, nor could pretty and dumb Lily James … err, act! Thankfully she doesn’t seem to have many of the badly written lines in the film. The real lead is Cate Blanchett who is the only one worth watching. Alas, her character is ruined by Hollywood’s obsession with explaining away evil and cruelty.
In this sanitised and sugary version, our poor stepmother has a heart full of sorrow because the love of her life has died and she needs money to pay for her extravagant lifestyle. That makes the character weak and boring, although Blanchett carries it off well. There is no fear in the film, no suspense, no action, things that were perfectly combined in the 1950 Disney’s cartoon. Even the fairy godmother is ruined by a petulant Helena Bonham Carter. Lucifer, the evil cat, is barely there and the King, who was fun and crazy, has turned into a tragic Shakespearean figure. Screenwriter Chris Weitz needs to be singled out for ensuring a combination of corny scenes, poor jokes, and a total lack of substance. It is a lavish and insipid production, which concentrates on costumes and palaces and lacks any magic.
The story of Cinderella has sometimes been criticised as sexist for portraying women in need to be rescued by a Prince. Yet, the focus of the story is Cinderella, who gets handed a bad hand in life and then gets a lucky break. It shows how life is unfair, how a girl who had wealth plunged into poverty, but then gets lucky again. Cinderella gets what she deserves after much humiliating scrubbing of floors. One should consider the rather scarce social mobility for all and non-existent one for women in the pre-industrial era. The other timeless aspect of Cinderella is the hope for escape and redemption, regardless of whether reality can actually change. Some might view it as escapism, a running away from reality and responsibility; yet I believe there is value in fantasy, in imagining a different life. The focus of the story is not the marriage to the Prince, but going to the Ball, passing as a Princess, instead of being imprisoned in one’s daily mediocrity. It is one of the reasons why we watch films.
The film Precious did this extremely well. The gritty, violent, and humiliating life of Precious was interspersed with her colourful fantasies of being a celebrity. They were fun and charming, revealing her strong spirit and imagination. They kept Precious going and, with her, the audience. In Into the Woods, Cinderella runs away from the Prince three times. She is not taken by him, but she likes going to the Ball. The Ball of Into the Woods is a Maskenfreiheit, the freedom of wearing a mask, which Nietzsche judged negatively as escapism. I believe that to be reductive. In Into the Woods, Cinderella does not want to be someone else, but to play, to experience something different. The Ball is the freedom of imagination.
Enchanted (see post) ‘updates’ Cinderella to contemporary tastes. Here’s a ‘Cinderella that no one knows’.