As far as heroines go, Cinderella's a total milquetoast.
It's not all her fault. In their traditional forms, most fairy-tale heroines are paragons of comeliness and purity, stuck waiting on princes and the odd huntsman to save them. (It's the less famous ones, like the ladies of The Iron Stove and The Snow Queen who get to have real adventures.) But at least Snow White is all families-of-choice, Rapunzel is clearly working some serious solitary weirdness, and Sleeping Beauty takes a nap of epic proportions, and who doesn't love naps?
Cinderella, though — Cinderella just suffers in silence, remaining kind and dutiful and weeping quietly into the fireplace until a magical someone loans her a fancy dress so she can nab a rich guy she barely knows to take her away from all of the servitude into which she's slipped. She requires an extra layer of rescuing in order to be rescued! Also, she feeds the rodents infesting her own goddamn house, and Little Edie she is not.
And Disney's new Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh from a screenplay written by Chris Weitz, is steadfastly straightforward — a non-musical, live-action cousin to the 1950 animated movie, which draws from 17th-century French author Charles Perrault's version of the fable. It has Disney touches — like an anthropomorphised CGI Gus Gus the mouse — and it's as pretty as a painting, set in a gorgeous pseudo-Europe made up of picturesque mini-kingdoms and no visible lower classes. But it's still populated by flesh-and-blood people, including Lily James as the title character, née Ella, Richard Madden as Prince Charming, Cate Blanchett as Cinderella's stepmother Lady Tremaine, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother.
The story of Cinderella is theoretically about virtue in the face of adversity, but it also works as one big someday-you'll-be-sorry fantasy in which many a distressed teenager (and the occasional distressed adult) has sought solace after a fight with parents, friends, lovers, and/or co-workers. Cinderella is blameless, and people are cruel to her for no reason, and then someone recognizes the perfection hidden under the soot and she's elevated to the aristocracy and gets to magnanimously forgive her tormentors before leaving them in the dust. James is perfectly winsome and bright as Cinderella — and so wasp-waisted that people wondered if her silhouette was digitally altered — and as the prince, Madden's eyes are so blue and his teeth so white he looks like someone's bumped up his saturation levels in Photoshop. The movie arranges to have the lovers meet by chance in the forest first, where they're captivated with one another before she ever knows who he is, freeing her from any hint of a mercenary motivation.
Or any obvious motivation at all. Disney's Cinderella is a fine retelling of the fairy tale, but like a fairy tale, its heroine's goodness gets tied to her passivity and lack of desire. While her stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) ask her father (Ben Chaplin) for laces and parasols, Cinderella doesn't have any need for such fripperies. When he passes away, her attempts to help around the house lead to her being shunted into servitude and moved to the attic without voicing an objection or putting up a fight. She wants to go to the ball not to the meet the prince, but to see the man she met in the woods again — who, conveniently, is the prince. She doesn't care about appearance or owning fancy things or being a princess, and so, she gets to be the most beautiful girl at the party, in the nicest dress, who marries royalty, without ever stooping so low as to reach for these things herself.
Like most famous fairy tales, Cinderella is already so familiar that most adaptations use it as a starting point for postmodern twists or modern-day settings. Even Disney has been more focused on subverting or reworking classic characters in its recent run of Frozen, Maleficent, and Into the Woods. Though Cinderella isn't revisionist, Blanchett manages to make you wonder about the movie it could have been if it were to continue the Disney tradition of villainesses being more colorful, more interesting, and generally more boss than the princesses they torment. (Elsa in Frozen, as Jeet Heer pointed out, "is hugely popular, more than her sister, because she is evil queen made more sympathetic.")
As Lady Tremaine, Blanchett arrives dressed and lit like a femme fatale, slinking into the movie in an intricate lace dress, her lipsticked smile curling from beneath her wide-brimmed hat. Her high-fashion appearance (she's often clad in envious green, though at one point, she wears leopard print) exists in contrast to Cinderella's never-named mother, played by Hayley Atwell, who's all natural visage and floral frocks and sunlight glowing through her loose hair, right up until her sudden, untimely death.
Unlike Cinderella, Tremaine clearly works hard to be beautiful, because it's the main weapon in her arsenal. She's already loved and lost one husband, and she didn't have the luxury of marrying for reasons of the heart the second time. As she reveals to her stepdaughter later in the movie, she wed Cinderella's father in order to support her own children, and all of her ambitions for the ball involve ensuring advantageous marriages for the two of them. For his part, Tremaine's new husband doesn't pretend she'll live up to the memory of his late wife — when news of his death arrives, she even has to stand by, listening, her face closed, as the messenger earnestly turns to Cinderella and says that "to the end, he spoke only of you, miss, and your mother."
In the context of a fairy tale, Tremaine's calculations mark her as cold, but in the magic-free real world she brings with her, they're only practical — she has no independent wealth to fall back on, no other means of supporting her family, and she understands that romance can be a euphemism for a less gauzy transaction. "Nothing is ever given," she hisses with terrible conviction. "We must pay and pay."
And pay her daughters do. Cinerella's stepsisters cinch themselves into corsets and ridiculous-looking cage skirts as they prepare for the ball, because the actuality of looking ball-ready takes hours and plenty of discomfort. In this telling, unlike the ones in some decidedly un-Disney ones, the stepsisters don't end up chopping off their heels or toes in order to fit their feet into the glass slipper when it comes their way, but they do try their hardest to painfully wedge them in, along with the rest of the marriageable women in the kingdom.
Cinderella, however, is transformed into a noblewoman with the wave of a wand in the movie's best scene, which recreates the iconic moment when the servant girl's signature blue ball gown is magically conjured from the rags of an old pink dress that was torn to bits by her livid stepfamily. The scene is even more divine in live action as the incandescent skirts swirl against a velvety black backdrop. It's the illusion of impeccable but effortless femininity, down to the precariously high-heeled glass slippers, which, the Fairy Godmother assures, are "really comfortable."
Cinderella indulges in its magical bubble, but doesn't entirely forget the reality of life outside. There's a conflicted air to its treatment of the women antagonizing its perfect princess-to-be. She may have no trouble delicately dancing in five-inch glass heels all night, but the rest of us probably would. Most of the rest of us wouldn't even be able to put them on at all.