By Steven Rea
The Philadelphia Inquirer
It’s a question Kenneth Branagh has been asked a lot lately: Was he wary, when first approached about rebooting — re-glass slippering — the 1950 animated classic “Cinderella”? The Disney feature, ninth on the American Film Institute’s all-time list of animated features, is an iconic pop culture artifact beloved by millions — all that and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” too. Would it be foolhardy to try to turn it into a live-action film?
Short answer: No.
“I was so intrigued by the idea of doing a fairy tale — and with a sad girl in the center of it — having just done a couple of big, boys-y movies,” Branagh says, referring to his directorial turns with the espionage action pic “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and Marvel’s inaugural “Thor.” “And I’m always inspired by that which has gone before, and I think it’s not in anybody’s interest for me to be intimidated by it if I’m trying to encourage them to see it,” he says.
Branagh has enjoyed great success tackling that-which-has-gone-before on stage and on screen, in front of the camera and behind it — and often both. His 1989 “Henry V” landed him Oscar nominations for best actor and best director. His sophomore effort, “Dead Again” (1991), was a noir throwback, redolent of Chandler and Hitchcock. He has adapted five Shakespeare plays for the screen, taken on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (casting himself as the mad scientist), directed the film version of Anthony Shaffer’s Tony-winning “Sleuth,” and even brought Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” to movie theaters.
So why be daunted by the story of a woebegone scullery maid who gets to hang with a dashing royal?
“I’d be most interested to know how many people find themselves watching the original 1950 film in relation to this movie,” says Branagh. “I think they will find quite a number of differences. And they may agree with me — and as Disney had decided — that it was time for a new one. That the 21st century could really reinvent this character from the inside out.”
In Branagh’s live-action and lively version, both the titular heroine, played by Lily James, and the prince, played by Richard Madden, have been given more depth, more backstory. When the fairy tale duo first meet, neither knows who the other is, or what they do — they’re in the woods, they chat, a connection is made. It’s only later, at the palace ball, that the relationship takes its more familiar course.
Flanking James and Madden on either side are Cate Blanchett, frosty and scheming as Cinderella’s stepmom; Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera (Daisy on “Downton Abbey”) as the stepsisters; Helena Bonham Carter as a ditzy Fairy Godmother; Stellan Skarsgård and Nonso Anozie as advisers to the prince; and Derek Jacobi as the king.
Branagh, born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and knighted in 2012, is, then, a classicist — but a classicist unafraid to put a new spin on things.
“Originality is always preferable and desirable,” he offers. “But I’ve never felt enslaved to the new, either . . . thinking that newness is somehow a symbol of potential superiority. I see a lot of new things which are basically rehashes of other, classic material.
“I’m robust about the idea that there are only six or seven stories in the world to tell — stories that people want to hear, somehow, around the fireside of their minds. And the Cinderella story is one of them, for sure. I see the Cinderella story in most sports films — that idea of the underdog eventually getting to go to the ball is dressed up in many different forms. . . . Human beings clearly need to hear that story regularly. And that gives one confidence about doing it.”
For Branagh’s “Cinderella,” which will open Friday, the director looked high and low for his leading lady. Saoirse Ronan, Alicia Vikander, and Gabriella Wilde were reported to have tested for the part. As for James, who may look familiar to “Downton Abbey” fans — she’s Lady Rose — the actress initially read for the role of one of the stepsisters.
“And when I first heard the tape of that audition, I registered this very warm and loving — and lovely — voice. That was one of the first things that struck me,” he recalls. “She was obviously very beautiful, quite shy and fragile-seeming, but clearly strong beneath, and had a sense of humor. She snorts a bit when she laughs. Just immensely charming and engaging, but also very determined and very stubborn, as we learn later in the film. . . .
“So, she’s the combination of this kind of simplicity and gentleness, in her voice and in her demeanor, and this strength, as well. And over maybe five or six auditions, all this revealed itself. She became our natural choice.”
Casting Jacobi as the king required less deliberation. It’s the umpteenth time Branagh and the esteemed British veteran have collaborated, to be exact.
“The first time I saw him, I was 16, 17, I saw him play Hamlet, one of my first trips to the theater, and then he directed me as Hamlet maybe 10 years later and then I directed him in ‘Hamlet’ playing Claudius, and then along the way he was in ‘Dead Again’ and ‘Henry V,’ of course. . . .
“And his impact and influence on the younger actors here was huge, in the sense of having an ensemble and offering this sort of effortless authority. . . . In many cases, particularly for a picture like this, that really adds a layer of human dimension. You feel that Derek is able to be much more at home in a part where he needs to make an impact quickly, and he’s at ease with me and I with him, and you really feel the rapport and the longevity working for the part.”
Branagh has plans to bring another Shakespeare piece, “The Winter’s Tale,” to London’s West End this fall. “That’s a play that I love, a play that’s been dismissed, in fact, because it’s too fairy tale-like, too much magic. It’s like Cinderella, for goodness’ sake!”
Between now and then, another film, perhaps? What’s next?
“I’m very much hoping to be in a field, near where I live, walking my dogs,” he says. “That’s a high-ranking ambition.”