There's no empowerment message embedded in Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, no "Girls can do anything!" cheerleader vibe. That's why it's wonderful. This is a straight, no-chaser fairy story, a picture to be downed with pleasure. It worries little about sending the wrong message and instead trusts us to decode its politics, sexual and otherwise, on our own. And face it — kids have been left on their own to decode the politics of fairy tales for centuries. Like all of Branagh's films, even some of the bad ones, Cinderella is practically Wagnerian in its ambitions — it's so swaggering in its confidence that at times it almost commands us to like it. But it's also unexpectedly delicate in all the right ways, and uncompromisingly beautiful to look at. This bold, rococo Cinderella is not for the weak, which is to say, it's perfectly OK for kids. It's adults, conditioned into anxiety overdrive when it comes to suitable heroines for the kinder, who may hold back.
But what you'll miss if you do! Lily James (of Downton Abbey) plays the Ella of the title. The "Cinder" prefix comes later, but we first see her (at this point played by Eloise Webb) as a sunny little girl living an enchanted childhood in some sort of fantasy Euro-England, a world of cozy-elegant country estates, walls adorned with muted golden curlicues and faux Watteaus. This idyll, as we know, is short-lived: Ella's mother (Hayley Atwell) dies from a sudden illness, and her father (Ben Chaplin) remarries, badly. Ella's stepmother, Cate Blanchett's Lady Tremaine, makes her entrance in a sweeping gown of acid yellow and black, part antebellum hussy, part Gale Sondergaard dragon lady, her eyes glittering behind a veil of femme fatale netting. Her two buxom, chattering daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera), follow closely behind, wafting on clouds of mean-girl perfume. When Ella makes an awkwardly polite attempt to address her father's new wife, she's cut off with an icy lizard smile: "No need to call me 'Stepmother' — 'Madame' will do."
Then the worst happens. But even after she's forced into menial servitude, Cinderella never loses her good cheer. As the primrose-radiant James plays her, she never comes off as a simp, maybe thanks, in part, to James's sturdy, storm-cloud eyebrows: She's a princess with presence. No wonder the mice of the household adore her — they chatter their thanks as she upends a teacup to make a dinner table for them. (Later, they repay the favor by allowing themselves to be transformed into the horses that will draw her carriage: In a wonderful, whimsical touch, their outsize mouse ears are the very last thing to scale down to correct equine proportions.) Nor is it any wonder that, as Cinderella rides her exquisitely dappled gray horse through the local woods, the Prince known as Charming sees her and falls instantly in love. He's played by the almost comically handsome Richard Madden, whose ultra-blue eyes may be CGI-enhanced, but who cares? His whole persona is an embodiment of Ingrid Bergman's laughing retort, in Saratoga Trunk, when an admirer tells her how beautiful she is: "Yes, isn't it lucky?"
This Cinderella has been touted as a live-action rendering of Disney's 1950 animated version, and though it roughly follows the original's contours, writer Chris Weitz gives it some extra emotional dimension. This is the first Cinderella I can think of where the prince, rather than just being a handsome rescuer, is a thoughtful young man confounded by sorrows and challenges of his own and just as susceptible to loss as his poor, orphaned future bride. (Madden's Prince has a stunning scene with Branagh favorite Derek Jacobi as his father, the King — it's a moment of father-son affection that's Shakespearean in its scope and texture.) And say what you will about Branagh's notorious ego: When he makes a movie, he makes a movie, a grand marvel of visual details and gestures that laughs haughtily at the idea of being watched at home on a TV screen, let alone an iPhone.
Cinderella, as shot by Haris Zambarloukos, has some of the lavish visual madness of one of my favorite Branagh films, the little-seen 2006 Magic Flute. Here, Dante Ferretti's production design — including an opulent golden-filigree coach that springs from a humble pumpkin, courtesy of dipsy-doodle fairy godmother Helena Bonham Carter — is like a treasure box in motion. And Sandy Powell's costumes are an intentionally, joyfully anachronistic mix: Blanchett's exquisitely devious performance is only made better by the assortment of killer '40s and '50s costume jewelry she gets to wear, a garden of leafy gilt collars and necklaces set with multicolored rhinestones the size of walnuts.
Like all Disney films, Cinderella does have a message, and the fact that it's repeated about eighteen times shouldn't be held against it. On her deathbed, Cinderella's mother urges her daughter to "Have courage, and be kind." If fairy-tale movies need to have messages at all, is this such a bad one? Particularly considering it's an idea that opens out into the greater world, instead of merely turning the mirror inward toward that tricky sense of being so blithely known as self-esteem? Little girls today, the thinking so often goes, need to be told repeatedly that they're smart and beautiful and can do anything boys can. But in our tail-chasing anxiety to offer reassurance, are we breeding a society of little-girl tyrants who expect the world to meet them on their own girl-power terms? My own parents, the typically distracted variety so common in the 1950s and '60s, never thought to say to me, "You can be or do anything you want!" If they had, I'd have immediately been suspicious — "There's obviously a very slim chance that I can be or do anything I want, or they wouldn't be making such a big deal about it." There are benefits to being left alone to figure things out.
Unlike Frozen, Cinderella features no wretchedly unsingable anthems about being true to oneself. (As far as music goes, it uses only snippets of songs from the animated version anyway.) This Cinderella, in fact, seems adamantly opposed to making us feel better about ourselves in a false way — Branagh and Weitz are more interested in the power of transformation, in the nature of longing, and in the idea of waiting as part of the human condition, not just the feminine one. When Cinderella's modest, girlish dress is transformed by her fairy godmother into a shimmering blue confection fit for a young woman, the moment is less a princessy fantasy come true than a relief, and a rite of passage — now she can get on with the business of being her own woman, and the movie's honest about how that's not always going to be pretty. Cinderella, as Charles Perrault originally wrote her and as Branagh draws her here, is a girl waiting for something to happen. But then, as any boy will tell you, girls aren't the only ones who wait, and who know loneliness. When this Prince and his elusive Princess finally reconnect over a glass shoe, they look at each other and laugh over their mutual good fortune. But they also rattle off a few of their faults, as if each were warning the other that perfection is to be expected only in fairy tales. They've both been waiting such a very long time; now each has been rescued by the other. The real work begins, and it's anything but passive.