Film Review: Cinderella
Then, sometimes, I love films like Cinderella.
Boasting the emotional and thematic complexity of an average episode of Playdays, Disney’s new, live action version of their classic rags to riches animation hits every note you would expect from one of their shallowest stories. There are anthropomorphised animals, glass shoes and ugly stepsisters (although this time it is insisted that their ugliness is interior). If you saw the trailer and felt a little nauseous, this probably isn’t the film for you. It is an unashamed fairy tale, so your response to that will probably dictate what you think of the film. However, after countless attempts at reimagining or reinventing fairy tales to make them edgier, darker or a bit more post-modern (think Maleficent or Snow White and the Huntsman), it’s refreshing to see something as straightforward and uncomplicated as Cinderella.
Yet there is still a great deal of skill involved in telling a simple story well, and in Kenneth Branagh they have found the perfect fit for a director. Although his most recent credits were a Jack Ryan film that everyone forgot the moment it was released, and Thor, a silly film about Norse gods, Cinderella is most similar in style to his spectacular four hour version of Hamlet. There are grand palaces, everyone is wearing immaculate, stunning costumes and there is even a bit of fencing. Legendary production and costume designers Dante Ferretti (Hugo, Gangs of New York) and Sandy Powell (almost anything with period costumes) make this a brightly-coloured, lavish and occasionally over- the-top film, while music by Patrick Doyle swoops and soars in the background. It’s as subtle and demanding as an episode of ‘The Great British Bake Off’, but if you are OK with that, it’s difficult not to get swept up in the opulence and warmth of it all.
Now, Think Theology is a website that often discusses the depth, commitment and longevity involved in a marriage. As such, it is unlikely that you would find any of my fellow writers endorsing a view of relationships that sees the main couple agree to get married after two meetings, a dance, and a glamorous stiletto fitting. In secular society, such silliness is equally frowned upon, more often than not for the dated view of gender roles. Disney have a history of making films where marriage is the end game for young women, where they achieve their escape, or establish their worth, or find true happiness. Often the princesses are characterless, defined only by their desire for a prince. For most people, then, the naivety with which this film depicts relationships is going to be too old fashioned, too simple, too sexist, too boring.
I still loved it.
There are so many reasons I’m OK with the way Cinderella depicts relationships it’ll be enough to concern my church leaders. Firstly, Branagh’s version gives both Prince and Princess a little more to do, the former with a surprising, heartfelt relationship with his father the king, the latter a motivation to be kind and courageous in the face of her step family’s ugliness. Secondly, it’s not intended as a How To guide on gender roles, relationships or marriage. It’s a fairy tale, and a decent one at that.
Should Christians watch and consume fairy tales, though? Should their children? In some translations, Proverbs 12 says that “those who chase fantasies have no sense,” perhaps a warning against fanciful stories like this. The wide eyed escapism of Cinderella could perpetuate unhelpful ideas about meeting the one, or promote the desire for money and marriage as the ultimate aim; nobody at all has a life on earth like Ella does. You might say, so what, it’s just a kid’s film. The problem is, culture affects our thinking through osmosis, and if this is the predominant kind of story being told then generations of people growing up hearing these stories could end up with totally warped ideas about how the world works. It’s probably an important question to ask, and certainly one that even I, a loyal fan of Disney, will consider if I’m ever a parent – what are the stories I tell teaching my children?
The issue is, there is very little out there in the world of cinema that depicts relationships in the way that either meets the ideals of a Christian view of love and marriage, or even the reality of it. The closest I can think of is the quiet commitment of the main couple in Mike Leigh’s Another Year (which is a fantastic film, should you get the chance). Aside from that, popular culture is saturated with depictions of relationships that don’t really look like the ones that we seek to teach from the pulpit, or demonstrate in our own lives. Hollywood and independent films alike show self-serving or saccharine romances that rarely depict love as a choice, where good but difficult decisions are made. I would love you to let me know if you can actually think of films that depict self-sacrificial, covenantal marriage – but still in a film that’s actually good.
Anyway, the crux of all of this is that it’s difficult to find anything in culture that we can properly endorse or hold up as an ideal, so in the mean time, I actually think there is a lot to take from a story as traditional and, well, silly, as Cinderella. For the romantics, there’s something very moving about the naive love displayed here, especially in the wonder of finding somebody who loves you equally in return (however soppy and cheesy it may be). More than that, however, is the fact that Christians should, at heart, be optimists. Allow me an allegorical stretch, and you’ll see that there is a strange echo of our own lives in Cinderella’s, in that we have both been taken from a place of slavery and brought, undeservedly, into a kingdom of untold wealth and beauty because of the love of a king’s son. We perhaps shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss totally unbelievable fairy tales when, in a way, we live in one.