Fairytales and Disney go together like, well, fairytales and Disney. The two are intrinsically linked and it's hard to imagine the studio attempting to shift their focus from anything other than that. With last year's Maleficent raking in a substantial box-office return, Cinderella was quickly announced as the next in Disney's live-action plundering of its own archives.
Lily James is Ella, a young woman who lives an idyllic life with her father and mother in a beautiful house in an undisclosed country, sometime in the 18th century. We think - it's all rather vague. As is expected, the mother soon succumbs to a mystery illness - but not before she reminds her daughter that the only way to make it through life is to "have courage and be kind." So it goes that the father remarries to Lady Tremaine, played by a vampish Cate Blanchett, and with her comes her two daughters, Drisilla (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). Ella is visited again by hardship when her father passes away, leaving her alone with the evil stepmother.
When a chance encounter with a dashing Prince (Richard Madden) sparks the prospect of love in her own life, her sisters and stepmother round on her yet again with even more cruelty. The Prince, besotted with Cinderella, (even though he doesn't know her name) sets out to find the young woman by hosting a lavish ball, inviting every maiden across the land to attend. It's then that Cinderella encounters her fairy godmother and the story begins in earnest.
Director Kenneth Branagh is no stranger to gorgeous, sumptuously-made period dramas. 1994's Hamlet, which is the most complete adaptation of Shakespeare work ever mounted, was filled with beautiful cinematography, intricate costumes and a real sense of charm and wonder. It's the same here again. As well as this, Branagh utilises his ability to infuse potentially wooden dialogue with a sense of lyricism and vitality. Yes, they all speak very posh - but you're in the world so it makes sense.
Whether Cinderella works or not weighs across Lily James' shoulders. Taking up most of the screentime, her upbeat nature never feels forced or contrived. Madden's bravado and leading man looks allow him to slot perfectly into Branagh's world as well. The film does a very good job of casting Cate Blanchett in a not-wholly unsympathetic light, something that the original animated film overlooked entirely. Likewise, Ella's constant buoyancy and innocence never feels hokey or unforced, rather than she's genuinely a decent person who believes in the goodness of people.
The constant references to magic and kindness might be a bit too much for some, but if you can stomach the sugariness, there's an earnest story about how kindness is the greatest power of all. A gorgeous, sumptously-made family fairytale. Recommended.