As pure of heart as its heroine, "Cinderella" floats across the screen like a gossamer confection, full of elegant beauty and quiet grace.
No sly asides, no double entendres and nary a hint of modern-day gender politics dilute this poetically, if not prophetically, imagined storybook fable embraced in toto by director Kenneth Branagh. If you can content yourself with a little enchantment and little enlightenment, "Cinderella" succeeds.
The film stars Lily James, "Downton Abbey's" Lady Rose, as Cinderella and Richard Madden, "Game of Thrones'" King of the North Robb Stark, as the charming Prince. They make a magnetic couple you root for even knowing the happily ever after is preordained. Indeed the film, written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Chris Weitz, follows the well-known classic fairy tale chapter and verse.
Branagh, with Oscar nominations for his acumen both in front of and behind the camera, confines himself to the director's chair this time, and you sense that singular focus; nothing feels an afterthought.
Cate Blanchett is wonderfully wicked as the evil Stepmother — though more turned dark by bitterness and bad breaks than cruel intentions. With a little assist from her nettlesome daughters, Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), she stirs up the requisite turbulence.
The film opens in the days before Cinderella, or Ella as she's called, is orphaned. The death of her mother (Hayley Atwell) and, some years later, her father (Ben Chaplin), bring a twinge of sadness. Otherwise, rarely is there even a cloud in the blue skies above her. And when a major storm does threaten, her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) is there to intervene.
Though the film is live action, there is a good deal of CGI magic by a massive team at MPC, which also did Disney's "Maleficent." Patrick Ledda serves as "Cinderella's" visual effects supervisor. The morphing of a pumpkin into a carriage, the various creatures into horses and coachmen, and a certain sparkling glass slipper are visually sumptuous.
The production design by Dante Ferretti is lush and regal in the palace, country-modest at Ella's family's rural estate. The lovely costume creations by Sandy Powell range from the over-the-top crinoline pomp of those hard sisters, Drisella and Anastasia, to the flowing softness of Ella's everyday rags and her ball gowns, sure to be copied in great numbers come Halloween.
A rich array of ancillary characters populate the film and inject whimsy and energy, along with even more heart. The Prince's father, the ailing king played by Derek Jacobi; the Prince's wise, wry Captain (Nonso Anozie) and Bonham's Fairy Godmother are the best. There are no big guffaws in the film, but there is a sense of humor throughout, the Captain and the Fairy Godmother responsible for most of it.
None of this would have worked, however, if James had slipped up. Whether barefoot, sweeping up cinders or in towering glass slippers, she never stumbles. James makes Ella seem as if the sweet and spirited young maiden is infused with an inner glow. It never feels a fraud and makes Madden's playing of hopelessly devoted believable, though at times a bit too gobsmacked. Even when Ella's piqued at her Stepmother's harsh treatment, James keeps the ire from turning hateful. In other hands, so much goodness would be too good to be true.
Blanchett … what can be said of the Oscar-winning actress, most recently awarded for her deconstructing trophy wife in "Blue Jasmine"? There is apparently nothing she can't do. And a lot of what the actress does in "Cinderella" is accomplished with little more than the pursing of her blood-red lips and the narrowing of her eyes, though she's given a tart tongue too.
As to the Prince and the beauty he intends to track down, though their eyes say "love at first sight" every time they lock, the couple's conversations circle around the idea of courage and goodness and what is best for the kingdom. These are altruists through and through.
Weitz, so deft in his telling of a single mother, her precocious son and Hugh Grant's self-absorbed playboy in "About a Boy," trades in the pointed cleverness from "Boy" that earned him an Oscar nomination for a sweet sincerity in "Cinderella."
It's a nice change of pace in these cynical times, though it's hard not to long for more.
There is simply not much emotional depth in this film. There is, however, the lightness we've seen in much of Weitz's work, like the animated "Antz." It helps keep the movie's oft-repeated message about choosing to do the right thing even in tough times from turning cloying.
Branagh is the wizard in charge of all this magic, and he uses his wand judiciously, knowing when to effect the dramatic crescendos and when to let his players, well, play. It is to the director's credit that he takes a tale in which there are no surprises and finds a way to let innocence, goodness and a storybook romance actually carry the day.
MPAA rating: PG for mild thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes