But it turns out that what was needed wasn’t irony, or CGI, or cops, or comedy. The best reimagining of the bunch scarcely even counts as a reimagining. Instead, Branagh’s Cinderella remains true to the storyline—and more important, the spirit—of its innocent, animated forbear. It’s all there: the kind, forsaken Cinderella (Lily James); the dashing prince (Richard Madden); the wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her selfish brood (Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera); even the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). The tone is one of quiet wonder. This is a world into which magic could creep, but seldom does.
Insofar as the script (by Chris Weitz) takes liberties, they're in the service of enriching, rather than upending, the classic fable. By far the greatest change is that it tells the fore-story that leads up to the main story, of Cinderella’s happy childhood before the dark clouds descended, of the loving mother (Hayley Atwell) who died young and the kind father (Ben Chapin) who made the terrible mistake of remarrying wrongly before he, too, passed away, abandoning “Ella” (who had not yet received her sooty, mocking modifier) to the escalating cruelties of Tremaine and her daughters. The 1950 film dispensed with this backstory in a tidy, 90-second prologue; by instead conveying it at length onscreen, Branagh’s film deepens not only Cinderella’s loss, but also her resilience.
The other alterations are of a kind. The movie tones down the slapstick and animal comedy: The mice are present (along with the demon-cat Lucifer) and the bluebirds make a few brief cameos, but in their place Cinderella functions as her own tailor. Rather than a hotheaded buffoon, the king (Derek Jacobi) is a kindly father to the prince, and one whose own time is also running out. In a rare but important nod to modern mores, the prince first meets and falls in love with Cinderella not in the ballroom, but admiring her skill on horseback when he meets her in the forest during a hunt. (By contrast, the decision to have her cinched into a wasp-waisted, organ-crushing corset for the ball is a rare misstep.) There are moments of knowing comedy, as when the fairy godmother, in search of a suitable conveyance to the ball, asks Cinderella, “Do you grow watermelons?” But for the most part, the film offers an admirable example of playing it straight.
The cast is uniformly strong, in particular James, who nimbly walks a tightrope between sweet and saccharine in the title role, and Blanchett, who is magnificent in her malevolence as Tremaine. Those Game of Thrones fans among us, however, will have to be forgiven our disorientation at the presence not only of Madden (a.k.a., Robb Stark) as the prince, but also of Nonso Anozie (who played Xaro Xhoan Daxos) as the Captain of the Guard. I think we can all join together in rooting against the sequel Cinderella 2: The Red Wedding.