Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cinderella (2015)

2.5/4

Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Nonzo Alonzie, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Stellan Skarsgard, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell

Rated PG for Mild Thematic Elements

Given Hollywood's obsession with "brand names," not to mention the timeless quality of the tale, I suppose a big budget, live action version of the tale of Cinderella was inevitable (the fact that Disney has already made a classic animated version of it probably made it all the sweeter for studio executives).  My memory of the animated version is fuzzy at best, but despite owning the tape, I remember hating the idea of it because it was a "girly" movie.  Boys will be boys, I guess.

This new version isn't half bad, but considering what it has going for it, it is disappointing.  Cate Blanchett is one of the leads, Stellan Skarsgard and Derek Jacobi play supporting roles, and it's directed by Kenneth Branagh.  It should have been great, but alas, the first half drags interminably and the lead can't act.

Ella (Eloise Webb as a child) is a happy 10 year old living with her mother (Atwell) and father (Chaplin).  Sadly, her idyllic childhood is not to last.  Her mother grows ill, and before she dies, she tells Ella to "Have courage and be kind."  It's a mantra that she takes to heart when her father remarries the Lady Tremaine (Blanchett).  When her father dies while away on business, Ella's new stepmother and stepsisters Drisella (McShera) and Anastasia (Grainger) waste no time in transforming Ella from the lady of the house to servant girl.  One day while out riding her horse, she meets a handsome apprentice named Kit (Madden).  They are instantly attracted to her, although he's not who he says he is.  He is in fact a prince, and when his ailing father (Jacobi) insists that he marry, he invites every girl in the kingdom to a ball to find her again.  Lady Tremaine won't allow this, so she and her daughters destroy the dress that Ella made.  Of course, that's when her fairy godmother (Carter) enters the picture to save the day.

By far, the film's first half is the weakest portion of the film.  The pacing is sluggish and lead actress Lily James (of "Downton Abbey" fame) gives a flat interpretation of the title character.  To be fair, that's partly due to the script, which is generic and lacking in depth, but James doesn't show much ability.  Once Helena Bonham Carter (who is delightful) enters the picture, the film picks up (the scene where Ella transforms from wearing a wrecked dress to gorgeous gown is impressive).  That's bad news for James' career, because if Kenneth Branagh can't get a good performance out of you, you've got problems.

Her co-star, Cate Blanchett, is in fine form.  It's not her best performance, but she brings depth and feeling to a fairly thin character.  As much of a bitch as Lady Tremaine can be, and she can be pretty cruel, Blanchett makes sure that we understand her.  It's Blanchett's touch, and it's something that the film desperately needs.

Of the supporting cast, no one really bears a mention.  Richard Madden (Robb Stark on "Game of Thrones") is hunky, but doesn't do much in the way of acting.  Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger are too fatuous and irritating to be effective comic relief.  Stellen Skarsgard and frequent Branagh collaborator Derek Jacobi are wasted.  Neither has much to do.

Kenneth Branagh has always possessed a great visual sense, and that is occasionally on display here.  It's got nothing approaching his version of "Hamlet," but the transformation scene and the ball are gorgeous to look at.

Is it worth seeing?  It's a tough call.  There are some elements worthy of praise (Colleen Atwood is a shoo-in for her costume design at next year's Oscars) and it's hard not to get caught up in it at least some what.  But the script is bland and Lily James makes for a flat heroine; Branagh has her do a big scene against Blanchett, which while important to the story, highlights the limitations of her abilities as an actress.  The target audience (pre-teen girls) will probably enjoy it, but everyone else would do better to wait for DVD.

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