Cinderella has no shortage of adaptations, from cartoons to live action, but Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 iteration is one of the finest re-tellings of the well-known fairy tale. Long-time Shakespearean thespian and director, Branagh lends “Cinderella” a majestic yet humbling quality, building upon the narrative rather than once more relaying the story.
Ella (Lily James) is a spirited girl who lives with her affluent mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin) in their family mansion. As a child, Ella is reared believing in magic and often attributes human qualities to the family pets, including the mice and a goose. On her mother’s deathbed, Ella promises to persistently show kindness to all. Some years later, her father marries Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who moves in with her daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera). While away on business, her father dies, leaving Ella with her stepmother and stepsisters.
Before the voyage, Ella’s father asked his daughter to care for her new family, a duty she continues after his death. Lady Tremaine, inheriting her late-husband’s estate, finds no reason to feign niceties to Ella, nor do Drisella and Anastasia. Ella transforms from daughter to servant, and despite their harsh treatment, complies dutifully and joyfully. From many nights sleeping by the fire, she’s dubbed Cinderella by her step family. A chance meeting with Prince “Kit” Charming (Richard Madden) leads the love-struck Prince to open the forthcoming ball to all maidens in the land, not just royalty.
Branagh’s version of Cinderella shines with a Shakespearean regality. Ella’s country estate feels plucked from “Much Ado About Nothing,” and the castle isn’t the Walt Disney cardboard cutout, but rather a sprawling, awe-inspiring palace. Even the animal transformation scenes are reminiscent of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The atmosphere feels genuine, employing scant CGI to set the stage, and allowing the cast to assume their rightful starring spots.
What makes Branagh’s envisioning of “Cinderella” so unique is Ella’s backstory. In most adaptations, Cinderella’s parents are simply deceased at the onset, but Branagh depicts Ella’s childhood. In doing so, he explains Ella’s selflessness, bordering on martyrdom. She persists in caring for her stepmother and stepsisters because of the promises to her parents shortly before their respective deaths. Explaining her painful selflessness is much more satisfactory than traditional adaptations, and moreover adds a new element to a familiar story.
The cast is truly remarkable, comprised of talent worthy of headlining films on their own. Branagh’s partner in crime Helena Bonham Carter portrays a kooky, and delightfully awkward, Fairy Godmother. Stellan Skarsgard lends his expertise as the Grand Duke, and Nonso Anozie plays the loyal and caring Captain. While there’s a multitude of Cinderella stories, director Kenneth Branagh managed to craft a marvelously enchanting, and wholly fresh, take on a tried fairy tale.