For all his austere leanings and weighty Shakespearean back catalogue, Sir Kenneth Branagh has never been afraid to dabble in the blockbuster mainstream. From the comic book bombast of Thor to his muscular Jack Ryan chronicle, Shadow Recruit, the Belfast-born performer seems strongly determined to balance out a directing career otherwise defined by the musings of the Bard.
In many ways, Cinderella represents an apogee of this approach. Dazzling, elegant, grand; Branagh’s Disney adventure is not a retuned, rebooted version of a classic but a straight adaptation of something as familiar to us all as cinema itself. Nothing here will change the world or mould a genre. That matters not. Just go with its cheeky flow, the kaleidoscope of colour and spirited performances, and there are myriad delights to be had.
If the story itself lacks originality — and this is Cinderella in its purest form — its execution cannot fail to impress. Branagh, that most august of thesps, has crafted a visually stunning feature, overlaying each deliciously rendered frame with gorgeous imagery and sleek aesthetics, his bustling palette wearing the look of some lovingly retouched HD edition of a golden age stalwart. The ultimate effect, at once breathtaking and mildly comforting, should serve to undermine even the most cynical of observers.
Arguably the film’s least frivolous element, Lily James steps out of the shadow of her simpering Downton Abbey alter ego to fill out the honest and uncomplicated title character, imbuing her with a low-key humanity that never tips into the gormless goody-two-shoes characterisation of the average fairytale heroine. Instead, James brings a realness to her role that reflects the sad strain of an otherwise idyllic childhood, her gentle mother (Hayley Atwell) dying suddenly and leaving Ella in the care of a doting but lonely father (Ben Chaplin).
What happens next is well known. Cate Blanchett arrives as Lady Tremaine, a poised, couture-wielding stepmother so devilish that she keeps a cat, called Lucifer, on a leash. The Australian star, a chameleonic and peerless actress, has great fun playing up to the antagonist stereotype, yet there are layers beneath the surface that might appear mawkish in a weaker grip. She and her gruesome daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) relegate Ella to servitude among the cinders soon after the death of her father, later forbidding her from going to the ball hosted at the royal palace by Kit, the dashing ‘apprentice monarch’ portrayed with jolly earnestness by Richard Madden (fully recovered from his savage demise in Game of Thrones).
Naturally, Ella does indeed go to the big event thanks to the intervention of Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother, a bundle of cut-glass energy given only the briefest cameo, though it is decisive enough to transform pumpkins into gilded carriages (“I don’t usually work with squashes: too mushy”), mice into stallions and lizards into footmen. While Branagh is clearly treating his adaptation as a serious enterprise, he never scrimps on the fun, steering an endlessly endearing romp through unplaceable, outrageously bucolic European backdrops and a love story most of us know inside out.
In our hardbitten age, a movie as eternally optimistic as this could feel out of place. Disney, of course, knows exactly what it is doing, sticking close to a formula in which it is steeped. The director simply adds class to an obvious studio attempt to retain the interest of the Frozen crowd and if the wonderfully choreographed dance sequence — a blur of soft swishing skirts and swooping camera work — towards the end does not capture the imagination of the masses, nothing will.
That Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have injected a charge of genuine human discourse into their fantasy speaks to a level of thoughtful engagement not necessarily required by the target audience. The wicked stepmother has her demons, the handsome prince his own crushing heartbreak to overcome. These ancillary strands underpin the spectacle and ensure, with a surprising degree of subtlety, that Cinderella’s charm lasts beyond the stroke of midnight.
A version of this article was first published here.