Cinderella (2015)

★★★

Cinderella PosterDirector: Kenneth Branagh

Release Date: March 13, 2015 (US); March 27th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Family; Fantasy

Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden

From the larger-than-life comic book strands of Thor to the slick, considered action of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Kenneth Branagh’s latest outing reflects the director’s willingness to venture down varied paths. Cinderella is certainly more in line with his traditional genre work — Shakespeare and classic novel adaptations — but it also shares the same vibrancy as Branagh’s recent outings. It does not rely heavily on the originality of any specific component; this is as competently classic as you are going to get. Rather, Cinderella works as a fairly fruitful whole.

We all know the story and the film knows we all know the story. Screenwriter Chris Weitz quickly disposes of the origin formalities with a sickly-sweet preamble starring Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin as mum and dad, the former filling in any narrative gaps via voice-over (and perhaps underused in retrospect). Mum dies — even on her deathbed, Atwell’s mother looks a brush of hair away from being ready to attack the day — and dad tragically follows suit, leaving not-yet-Cinder-Ella at the mercy of her bullying stepfamily. “Have courage and be kind” is the motto by which she must adhere, and adhere she does.

Since the fairy tale’s ins and outs are common knowledge, you expect to see something new from this Branagh-led incarnation, or at the very least something old told exceedingly well. It is more of the latter, if not entirely either. The screenplay typically weaves class and identity into the story: Prince Charming (Richard Madden) wishes to sell his own personality and not his superfluous value to Cinderella (Lily James), while Cinderella has no obvious desire to wed royalty, only to wed the kind apprentice she just met in the forest. Meanwhile, necessary excess — the grand carriage, the stunning gowns, the sheer beauty — is combated by Branagh and co. through emphasising other factors: courage, kindness, honesty, and humour.

Cinderella is so morally upstanding she opts to live her life in the company of insensitive rogues simply to uphold a promise made to her parents, to honour their memory through the upkeep of their residence. Lily James plays the fairy tale stalwart with such commitment and invitation; only a cast iron soul would find her demeanour off-putting. Cinderella is at times naive to the point of ridicule, but you always believe in her good nature regardless. And there is a commendable individuality to the lady-in-waiting: she seems in control, even when her fate is essentially dungeon-dwelling, control embodied by the not-so-subtle power she has over the prince (via love) and the more subtle power she has over her stepfamily (via her love for the prince).

Speaking of whom, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) make a suitably nasty counterweight. “She too had known grief, but she wore it wonderfully well,” we hear of Tremaine, Blanchett evoking a devious allure while robed in blacks and dark turquoises. The trio usher a culture of gambling and partying into Cinderella’s civilised household upon arrival, antics mirroring their deceptive tendencies. Along with Grainger and McShera’s proverbial stepsisters, Blanchett could have easily arrived for shooting directly from the set of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Like Jim Carrey, she chews the scenery, hams it up and more with success.

Her understudies are perhaps too cartoonish though they do provide occasional comic relief. Richard Madden has a better time of it and does very well in what could have been a tough role. You might expect a pristine rich boy to promote aggravation through smugness even unintentionally so, but Madden is far from that as Prince Charming, down-to-earth and somewhat — somewhat — relatable. And if not, he is definitely likeable. And also named Kit, coincidentally (Nonso Anozie shows up, another Game of Thrones connection). Conversely, some characters are not quite as assured in delivery. Stellan Skarsgård’s Grand Duke, for instance, bends morally without warning.

Patrick Doyle provides a score that sways from the bombast of brass to light, frothy strings. It matches the allure of the story’s royal ball, which in and of itself takes on even greater aplomb than is perhaps expected. The sequence wears the extravagance of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby, beckoned forth by fireworks and golden décor. Haris Zambarloukos’ camera loves Cinderella, as it should, and shows her in sparkling form even when she is doing the washing or ash-strewn from stoking fires.

In the end it does amount to something pretty conventional, but Branagh ensures a consistent level of quality is maintained in spite of the narrative’s recognisable outlay. This is a piece very much aware of its fairy tale heartbeat and it values said heartbeat accordingly. Sure, some of the conversations characters share are on the saccharine side and the thematic rituals are a bit too broad, but Cinderella is a thoroughly well-made and enjoyable live action expedition.

Cinderella - Lily James

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

★★★★

Director: Alan Taylor

Release Date: October 30th, 2013 (UK); November 8th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman

After Iron Man 3’s failure to ignite Marvel: Phase Two into top gear, Thor: The Dark World signals a brisk return to form for the franchise king as the film quenches any Mandarin-shaped spectres. Regardless of a few questionable plot elements, the second instalment of Thor brims with fun and is the epitome of rip-roaring cinematic entertainment, perhaps even bettering much of Marvel’s pre-Avengers universe.

With the impending arrival of the evil Alien-inspired Dark Elves — led by an utterly unrecognisable Christopher Eccleston — Chris Hemsworth’s Asgardian hero Thor must put aside much of the loathing he is entrenched in and team with his imprisoned brother Loki in order to save the Nine Realms.

Tom Hiddleston returns as the devious Loki and is a joy to watch when he is present on screen (which is certainly not enough) in another scene-stealing performance. There is a slight shift in the central relationship this time round: from the son of Odin and his mortal love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), to the natural-yet-severed dynamic between the brothers, and this certainly amps up the tension. Portman doesn’t have as much to do this time around and, much like Thor in the previous film, finds herself in unusual surroundings. The novelty of seeing Foster wander around Asgard doesn’t quite reach the same level of playfulness as bearing witness to the God of Thunder eating breakfast in a New Mexico diner.

The film simultaneously manages to be darker, wittier and more enjoyable as it rises above the satisfying level set by that of its predecessor. Director Alan Taylor takes a slightly different approach than Thor’s (2011) Kenneth Branagh, as he powers every nuance of the film with Mjolner and tongs. Taylor, who has recently worked on the hit television series Game of Thrones, delves into the fantasy world even more with encapsulating Lord of the Rings-esque costumes and landscapes aplenty. Stir in Brian Tyler’s grandiose score — which haunts as much as it packs a punch — and you’ve got the perfect concoction of post-Middle Earth entertainment.

Even the very occasional influx of sap quickly evaporates by way of some creepy imagery and a brooding underlying tone which was missing previously. Genuine danger manifests around the Dark Elves spearheaded by Eccleston’s Malekith — the villain’s name boasts a snake-like quality as it slithers off the tongue.

Proceedings threaten to boil over into mind-boggling territory come the final showdown, but a frantic pace and exhilarating action mesh together successfully as a means of retaining the audience’s attention.

The direction of Thor: The Dark World is set early on as action engulfs events (“Is that why everything is on fire?”) and by the time the realm-interchanging plot starts to confuse a little, the aesthetically supreme film has already delivered in pure enjoyment.