Branagh turns in a magical version of popular fairytale

It’s a brave man who dares to tamper with an iconic tale.
Lily James as Cinderella and Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother.Lily James as Cinderella and Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother.
Lily James as Cinderella and Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother.

Step forward Kenneth Branagh who, with the latest in his run of Hollywood extravaganzas, has turned in a delicious version of perhaps the most beloved fairytale of all, Cinderella.

Branagh’s bravery is perhaps tempered by the knowledge that he is remaking Disney’s timeless 1950 animated tale for the same company. But this one is live action. And unlike its predecessor there are no songs. Instead there is loyalty and honour, kings and princes, a wicked stepmother (icily played by Cate Blanchett) and a focus on doing the right thing.

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When asked about his take on the core of the film – the relevance to modern audiences and how the notion of female empowerment might appeal to today’s young women – 54-year-old Branagh reaches for an apposite quote. The source takes everyone by surprise. “I’m going to quote Gandhi. It seems like a crazy thing to talk about in relation to Cinderella but it goes to the heart of the question. Gandhi said, among other things, ‘When I despair I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and over time they can seem invincible but in the end they always fall. Think of it always.’

“Obviously we tried to find – in a much lighter way – the soul of the piece in there. The truth is something like Cinderella has the possibility of encompassing detail that we don’t ever need to spell out to a five-year-old child. It’s just in the fabric of the doing of it. When people talk about the sincerity of the movie it comes from that sort of place [and] not because we’re trying to be holier than thou. It’s just that I believe it.” Belief flows through Cinderella, both character and movie. Branagh wanted to root the film in the shared memory and consciousness of every little girl who had ever set foot in that magical realm.

What’s more he discovered that the average person’s response was wholly positive. Thus he made the film, he says, “for everyone”.

“When I told people that I was perhaps going to do the film I got a tremendous reaction from lots and lots of grown ups as well as every variety of man, woman and child. That made me feel that the story was very personal to people whatever their age.”

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When Branagh began his film directing career in 1989 he tackled Henry V. There followed a string of films, several of them rooted in Shakespeare. Then, suddenly, came Thor, a $90 million comic book epic that elevated Branagh as director to an entirely new level. He describes Cinderella and Thor as having a shared emotional connection along with a sense of visual immersion. What’s more both share a fantastical, supernatural or magical element. But it’s the human aspect that fascinates.

A ballroom sequence with Lily James’ Cinderella and Richard Madden’s prince sums up the mood of the piece. The lush grandeur of the scene has been likened to the films of Powell and Pressburger, not least The Red Shoes. Branagh is pleased by the compassion, and a little overwhelmed. “It’s a wonderful compliment because I revere those guys. They’re a huge personal inspiration.”

Did he have any special help along the way – perhaps from his own fairy godmother? Branagh smiles. “The film allows for people to think about that. It’s very nice to think that occasionally the universe in some form will come and help us out when we need it.”