Wednesday, December 23, 2015

diamonds and toads

Some of the happiest hours I have spent at home this Christmas have been cuddling with my sisters on the couch in a pile of mostly unnecessary blankets watching Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella. (The other happiest hours will be treated upon in due course.) Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella is a fantastic feat of story-telling, because it fills an old tale with new life, renewing it, without "reinventing" the story in any way. It succeeds in making the story unexpected. While I intellectually know what events will unfold, I found myself surprised and in suspense during the entire third act of the film. Will Cinderella get away from the king's men chasing her before her coach turns to a pumpkin? Will Cinderella be able to prove her identity easily with the slipper--WTF, Lady Tremaine. You are the worst. Will the prince overcome scheming stepmothers to find Cinderella and place the shoe on her foot?
If you have been raised in a Western country, you most likely know all the answers to these questions. Happy the film that can make you forget them, and fill you with sheer delight as the questions resolve into answers.

But, what delighted me the most about the film was the manner in which it found new depth and meaning in its characters, without fracturing the story at all. There was no modern twist (nothing wrong with modern twists. It's always fun--and often enlightening--to see our own contemporary social sensibilities applied to an ancient tale. But there was something true and timeless about Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella. It feels like part of a canon that Ever After or Ella Enchanted have not been invited to. It feels canon in the way that Disney's 1950 Cinderella is.

But, no doubt because it is live action and not animation, Branagh's film is forced to find a third dimension to its characters. Lily James' Ella is good. So radiantly, beautifully good and kind. The most kind, beautiful, good person you can possibly imagine, and you cannot help but love her. Once the goodness of Cinderella is manifest, we, the audience, can understand how someone as bitter and selfish as Lady Tremaine would--of course--hate someone as intentionally good as Ella. And Ella's goodness is not effortless--it takes resolve, courage, and strength. As Cate Blanchett remarks in the bonus feature interviews (shut up), in this film you can see the "human cost" of a fairytale.

The film grounds the prince "Kit" (I think? Was that his name, was that just a nickname? It's unclear.) and Ella firmly in their families. Seeing these relationships helps us see these characters as fully human. And once humanized, and brought out of the realm of folktale, cartoon, or myth, the story takes root more deeply in our hearts. 

I am brought back to my girlhood, when Cinderella was a character who I admired, before I'd read feminist critiques, before the Bechdel test, before I'd learned a critical eye. Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella has an innocence deeper than criticism, that can weather cynicism. It's not a going back to innocence, but a movement forward, deeper, towards a stronger sweetness.

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