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

The Great Gatsby (2013)

★★★★

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Release Date: May 10th, 2013 (US); May 16th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire

As Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the title character, Jay Gatsby, a very wealthy-yet-mysterious man seeking to rekindle his relationship with the woman he has loved for years, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). The story is narrated by war veteran Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who recalls his life living next door to Gatsby whose parties — attended by those from all over the country and overflowing with alcohol, entertainers and fireworks — are products of the Roaring Twenties, where the stock markets on Wall Street were booming and morale was at an all-time high post-World War I.

The Great Gatsby, or more aptly, ‘The Very Good Gatsby’, has Baz Luhrmann’s influence etched all over it, which by no means is a bad thing. Luhrmann, who had previously worked with DiCaprio on Romeo + Juliet, and whose recent directorial credits have included historical epic Australia and the extravagant Moulin Rouge!, certainly knows how to put on show — and more than anything else, The Great Gatsby is a spectacle. Everything from the acting to the set pieces to the costume design to the cinematography is set to full throttle here, as Luhrmann shows no restraint in his direction. And it needs to be this way: the man whose life the film centres on is an over-the-top, charismatic individual and therefore a film without extravagance would not have worked as well. Luhrmann puts the “Great” in The Great Gatsby, because had this film been anything different, it would probably have just been “Gatsby”.

“Jay Gatsby sure is tall.”

At a fairly substantial two hours and 20 minutes (or so) long, The Great Gatsby never really seems to let the pace drop which is a credit to Luhrmann and the writers, as too many lulls in the proceedings would have turned the film into a less-than-dramatic portrayal of a wealthy individual’s life. Personally, I feel that between the half hour and hour mark, there were a few extra-long party scenes which may have benefited from being trimmed down a little, but as I mentioned beforehand this may have taken a snippet of the excessive nature of the film away, a nature which The Great Gatsby relies on to be a success. The difference between, for example, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which, do not get me wrong, I enjoyed a lot) and The Great Gatsby is that just about every scene Luhrmann directs in Gatsby fulfils a necessary purpose in the plot, whereas An Unexpected Journey includes scenes which are, though entertaining, completely unneeded.

Since last working with Baz Luhrmann on Romeo + Juliet, Leonardo DiCaprio has moulded himself into one of the best actors in Hollywood at present (the best, for my money) and delivers another convincing, flamboyant performance as Jay Gatsby — a man who, on the exterior seems to have it all and lives the picturesque, glamorous life, whereas on the inside is broken and partially empty without the woman he has missed for five years. The mystique surrounding Gatsby during the first twenty minutes to half an hour of the film is very well executed, as he is a man seldom seen but mentioned very often, and spoke about with passion and awe. Tobey Maguire does a fine job carrying the film throughout the opening half hour or so, however as soon as DiCaprio arrives on the screen the film appears to move up another level (if that is even possible in a Baz Luhrmann offering). DiCaprio exudes importance and slickness as Gatsby and, as someone who has never read the book, completely sold me on the character. Tobey Maguire narrates the film very effectively and his voice never seems to make the film drag at any point. His on-screen acting is solid, much like it normally is, with himself and DiCaprio developing an intriguing dynamic throughout the piece (it is cool to see the two share the big screen together, having been very close friends since the early nineties). Carey Mulligan is elegance personified, balancing the correct amount of strength and frailty between her scenes with Gatsby and her husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton — who is part of a very strong supporting cast boasting the likes of Isla Fisher).

“Good day, old spore.” “For the hundredth time it’s ‘sport’ – not ‘spore’!”

Much has been said about the modern soundtrack to the film which contains the likes of Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Lana Del Ray. Personally, I did not see a problem with it, in fact it gave The Great Gatsby an extra oomph which 1920s music would more than likely have withheld from offering. Although the film is set over ninety years ago, Luhrmann’s narrative provides modernity and the cinematography creates a classic-yet-fresh vibe throughout. The costume design harks back to the Roaring Twenties (I remember them well) without making the characters look outdated, and this is down to the bright colours — that pink suit Gatsby is wearing is a show-stealer — and the intricate details of each piece of clothing. The set design throughout the film is to the highest standard which helps to create that party atmosphere associated with Gatsby — by contrast, the Valley of Ashes (an industrial works situated between New York City and Long Island) has all the grit, sweat and coal required to reinforce that everything must begin from the bottom and work its way up, echoing the life of Gatsby.

Without giving any spoilers away (yes, there will be people who know nothing about with plot — much like myself beforehand), in a film where hope appears to dwindle throughout — and I stress ‘appears’ — the final few scenes were very well delivered in my eyes, with Tobey Maguire’s narration concluding the film in a seamless manner. The very philosophical final few moments essentially provide the basis for what has gone on throughout the film, which, at heart, is much more about desire and soul than extravagance and dazzling lights.

“Think we get to keep the car?”

One criticism which I do have is that, on a few occasions, the editing seems a touch off (when Gatsby and Carraway are in the car), but this is more of an annoyance than a significant error. Overall, in regards to such criticism as the film prefers style over substance, I do not believe this to be the case and that the substance is in there, just not always as apparent due to the overload of style. For rather than meaning the style completely overawes the substance, it signals that Luhrmann has done a tremendous job in creating a mysterious and distant Gatsby on the outside, who has bolted up his emotion on the inside — much like Gatsby is looking to rediscover that emotion he has long withheld since losing Daisy, the viewer must find the substance in the film for themselves.

Baz Luhrmann has been vindicated in summoning another Gatsby out of the ashes, as The Great Gatsby is a well-directed mesh of extravagance, emotion and booming life throughout the 1920s, all patched together triumphantly by way off Tobey Maguire’s narration as Nick Carraway, and wonderfully acted at the hands of the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio.