So it’s a strange thing that fairy tales, instead of skulking away into the shadows of moral obsolescence, are—today! in 2015!—just as popular as ever. We have, most recently, Maleficent. We have Mirror Mirror. We have Snow White and the Huntsman. We have Grimm and Once Upon a Time and Into the Woods and Shrek and myriad other adaptations both satirical and very much not. And now we have, thanks to Kenneth Branagh—he of Shakespeare and Shelley and Mozart—a production of Cinderella that is remarkable only in its insistent eschewing of irony. Branagh's version of the classic story, released this weekend, takes the form many of us are most familiar with—the animated confection unleashed by Walt Disney in February of 1950—and re-imagines it in three dimensions. The new Cinderella, with Lily James in the starring role, stays faithful, for the most part, to the original: There are mice. There are comically ridiculous stepsisters. There is tulle—so much tulle!—and sparkles (Cinderella’s dress required 400 LED lights to construct) and invocations, via a shape-shifting sorceress, of “bibbety-bobbety-BOO.”
This whole thing would be, and to some extent is, weird and awkward and cloying. Live action changes the stakes, not just aesthetically, but semantically. In animation, a woman talking to mice is quirky; in live action, it’s a little bit creepy. There's the lizard who becomes a man who becomes a lizard again. There’s the tiny-waisted dress whose corset, James noted, "was pulled [within an] inch of my life." (The actress went on a partial liquid diet to fit into it.) There's the prince who seems to have been imported from a Mentos ad. And there is, overall, the earnestness. So much earnestness.
But there’s one character who, in adding some spice to all this spun sugar, saves the movie from itself: the stepmother. Who is played, pitch-perfectly, by Cate Blanchett, all haughtiness and hatred and cheekbones. In many previous adaptations of the Cinderella story, the telling adjective applied to the stepmother has been “wicked”; in others, it's been "evil." In this one, however, with the nuance Blanchett brings to the role, the defining descriptor is cruel. Lady Tremaine's abuse of Cinderella is not the result, her performance makes clear, of some sui generis malevolence; it is instead the direct result of the cruelties her own life has heaped upon her. And those, in turn, are the direct result of her being a woman. Lady Tremaine had a husband she loved once, she explains to Cinderella, and they had two daughters together. But then: Her husband died. She was left to fend for herself in a world that has little appreciation for single mothers of, no less, daughters. So she did what she had to do, out of social and economic necessity: She married again.
This time, though, it was not for love; this time it was to a man who still mourned his own dead wife, and who preferred his daughter’s company to hers. Desperation gave way to jealousy; then, when Cinderella’s father died, hope gave way to hatred.