“Have courage and be kind.” These are the last words young Ella’s mother gives to her in the new live-action version of the old Cinderella fairy tale. They are quite close to the wording in the Brothers Grimm version of the tale: “Dear child, be good and pious, and then the good God will always protect you, and I will look down on you from heaven and be near you.”
These are not words that have pleased modern Western sensibilities much, as we tend to value strength and independence over piety and goodness. And certainly we often have difficulty leaving our future in the hands of God.
This new version of Cinderella is not progressive or subversive. It tells the tale quite simply and sincerely, and it sticks to the basic storyline of the old animation. Cinderella still has a tiny waist, luminous pale skin, flowing blonde hair, and an overflowing bosom. The fairy godmother appears in due course to turn a pumpkin into a carriage and to give Cinderella a lovely new gown. Her friends, the mice, have to help in her ultimate rescue.
Still, this is a skillfully made and entertaining movie that has a subtle power of its own. Throughout the story, Cinderella is put upon, used, abused, and held back, to which she responds with patience and kindness. She does not lash out, she does not rebel, and she does not release her anger with magical powers of iciness like the popular Snow Queen Elsa from Frozen.
Those traits, patience and kindness, can be seen as passive submission, or they can be seen as quiet strength. We are often tempted to dismiss a response of quiet strength, but sometimes that is what is needed. If a girl is being bullied in school, or abused at home, or is drowning in isolation and depression, keeping quiet and living in memories of good times are the exact opposite of how we want them to respond. On the other hand, if a girl is unable to have a voice or if she lives in a society that gives her no rights, then the strength to survive, to go on, and to have hope that things will change is a mighty strength.
There are a few tweaks to the old story. Cinderella has one encounter with the prince early on that begins a relationship based not on social position but on an interest in what each has to say. She is not just a prize, and the prince is not just out to have the most beautiful girl in the land.
The visuals are gorgeous, as are the people. Lily James (Lady Rose from “Downton Abbey”) is a winsome Cinderella, and she plays the role of unending patience with a quiet strength. Cate Blanchett most ably brings in the chill as the cruel stepmother. The humor and pacing keep it moving along. Director Kenneth Branagh brings the same zest to an old story that he did with his beloved 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing.
All in all, this is old-fashioned fairy tale fun, though at the end it sneaks in the most powerful, subversive line of all. Many times movies seek justice in the form of revenge on the bad guys. As Cinderella leaves to begin her new life, she turns to her stepmother and says something most superheroes never do: “I forgive you.” Magical words indeed.