Kenneth Branagh's 2015 remake of Cinderella aimed to craft a more progressive central character. Fairy tale stories have had a poor image in recent years, with legions arguing they promote the idea that a girl needs a man to define her, and that they advocate body image and beauty over intelligence and self-determination.
“She’s not waiting around for a prince to rescue her, and she’s dealing with life as best as she can,” star Lily James told The Daily Beast about her variation of the classic Cinderella character. “She’s following what her parents taught her about having courage and being kind. And she’s finding happiness and joy in her life despite the sort of horrible circumstances that she’s in. When she meets the prince, they meet as equals. I feel like she enriches him as much as he enriches her.”
The idea was to create a Cinderella that strives to see the world and experience life, not one who is focused on meeting a prince as her only chance of escape. James says her personal view of Disney princesses is that they are free thinkers with strong ambition, and while this revisionist interpretation still boasts the magic and beauty that swept the original fairy tale, it aims to build a Cinderella with updated psychology.
Ella falls for the prince in a situation prior to the famous ball, without knowing he is the prince, leveling the playing field between the two. They earn each other’s love on their own merits, not strictly through physical appeal or regal status.
A problem modern audiences have with the classic Cinderella story is that Cinderella makes no effort to improve her own situation. Aside from sneaking off to the ball, the pitiable Cinderella takes abuse on the chin, cries, and sulks about her mistreatment. Without completely redefining the events of a classic story, the remake mildly re-characterizes Cinderella so as to give her more agency within her own tale, and to better justify the actions she takes (and doesn’t take).
The story opens with an introduction to Ella’s parents and the early death of her mother, who encourages child Ella to always be kind and courageous. Years later, her father re-marries a widow (Cate Blanchett) and soon dies, leaving Ella alone with her new family. This backstory helps establish Ella’s later inaction -- she remains in the family home to honor the memory of her parents and family who have owned the place for generations, and shows kindness to her terrible new relations as an act of following through on her mother’s commands. It takes both kindness and courage to remain civil in that environment, thus validating Ella’s seeming lack of self-interest.
When Ella meets the prince (Richard Madden) in the woods, their relationship instantly puts her in control. She commands the prince to not kill a stag he is hunting, so he does not. She learns the prince's name, but does not tell him hers. Her impact on him influences his future conversations with statesmen and occupies his mind. The idea that Disney princesses are looking to define themselves through marriage is nearly reversed; here, it seems the prince is more smitten with the idea of finding and marrying Ella than she is with him. In the animated film, the two don’t meet until the ball. This version has her not only meeting him earlier, but gives her a voice by which she influences the decisions of royalty. The voice she lacks within her own home is found outside its walls. The inaction of her character at home is contrasted by her action elsewhere.
As the story unfolds, the sequences involving the lead-up to the ball, and the ball itself, are fairly congruent with the original classic. The difference comes in what follows. Cinderella does not spend her post-ball time weeping in her attic bedroom -- instead, she shows a pleasant confidence through dancing and reminiscing about the wonderful evening she had at the castle. When the shoe-fitting committee finally arrives (with the prince himself present to discover her locked upstairs), she utters the significant ultimatum: “Will you take me as I am?” He answers in turn. This makes it clear that she only wants the prince under the condition that he accepts her humble status. In subtext, it also establishes that she isn’t willing to marry him simply because he is a prince. This plays to the fact she was originally taken aback by him in the woods, unaware of his status.
“I also love that in that moment she calls herself ‘Cinderella,’” James says. “She takes the name that was created to keep her down and belittle her and uses that name as strength and power. ‘Yes, this is who I am. I’m this girl. Take me or leave me.’ It’s a moment that I feel she’s empowered, but at the same time that’s a moment that is hopelessly romantic and magical.”
Following the shoe fitting, Ella forgives her stepmother for being a brute. This act puts the power in her hands and allows her character to rise above that of her stepmother. It rounds out the themes of kindness and courage presented by her mother in the first act.
Certain components of the Cinderella story can’t be changed or it fails to be the Cinderella story -- the glass slipper, the blue dress, the basic construct of girl-marries-prince, the fairy godmother and her magic carriage, the friendly mice -- these are all necessities around which the filmmakers have to work. Cinderella doesn’t aggressively fight back or try to thwart her oppression. Her fortitude is more emotional and intellectual, and those inner resources are what this remake attempts to highlight.
Lily James said, “This is a fairy tale and Ella is rewarded for her goodness. But even if she wasn’t, there is happiness in her world. It comes from within.”
Cinderella may still be superficially passive about the bad things that happen in her life, but the 2015 remake gives her a context and structure that attempt to render her a stronger, modern character.