Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Infinite Glass Slippers: Thoughts on Cinderella (2015)

Cinderella by Valentine Prinsep (1899)
I've embraced the newest film adaptation of Cinderella from Disney with more enthusiasm than I thought I would. Glossy frames, detailed sets, and expert editing can sell me on a whole lot in a visual medium. I embrace this Cinderella with hesitance, yes, but an eye toward the need for foundations.

The twist on this adaptation for Cinderella is that there is no twist. Lily James' turn on the character isn't Drew Barrymore's forward-thinking tomboy in Ever After. She's not the boastful, pixie-cut Leslie Caron in 1955's tongue-in-cheek, The Glass Slipper. She's not the flustered, conflicted heroine of Rossini's opera, La Cenerentola (1817).

Speaking of which, unlike the various adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, while Cinderella sings in the film's climactic reveal, there's no big production numbers featuring Whitney Houston.

Lily James is dewey-eyed and insurmountably uncomplicated. Her worst offense is earning the disdain of her stepsisters by chatting happily to mice when she doesn't see anyone else around.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (1997)
Kenneth Branagh's re-write is a softening of the character in the broader scope of live action adaptations, dismissing much of the agency she's been endowed with in previous incarnations. Her role is so deeply passive, rather than be given the chance to get the prince's attention when he arrives at her house, she sings "Lavender's Blue" during the film's climax. She does so by accident; the prince's retinue don't hear her and see she's locked away until the mice open the window for her. Barrymore's Danielle unabashedly saves herself but James' Ella isn't given the same chance.

At least Branaugh adds more definition to her than Disney's 1950 animated Cinderella, the one with which this film claims kinship. The animated main character of that feature is perfectly likeable the way Daphne from the original 1969 Scooby-Doo is likeable. Both are capable and nice (or at least, as Jessica Rabbit would purr, "drawn that way") but neither are designed to express much opinion outside the demands of the plot. They're charitable and kind because we never see anything denoting the contrary. They're pretty designs with a negative space where a character would be. Lily James' take is more animated than her cartoon counterpart.

Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China
Retold by Ai-Ling Louie and Ed Young
But Branagh isn't taking all his cues from the various Cinderellas in folk tales, either. The shoes are glass rather than the gold of Ye-Shen's slippers in the oldest known variation, the father is dead and not absent, Helena Bonham Carter is a cheery fairy godmother who provides extraneous narration rather than a tree buried over the body of Ella's dead mother (Haley Atwell), there's no coat of many skins that other Cinderellas have used to escape their predicament at the hands of terrifying guardians, the ball is one night rather than Perrault's three, and, unlike the Grimm version, the stepsisters survive with heels, toes, and eyes intact.

Snopes says the idea that Perrault's version gave Cinderella squirrel fur boots isn't true and I am infinitely okay with this.

The 2015 movie's setting isn't tied to a real-world time period or city, either, just a fictional, "Western" country. It's time-warped, simultaneously Rococo and Renaissance, and racially diverse. There's something troubling about the prince (Richard Madden) refusing to take the hand of Princess Chelina of Zaragosa (Jana Perez), a potential bride from an ambiguously Hispanic background who doesn't stand a chance when Cinderella enters the ballroom, though I recall her slight character as hesitant regarding the match as he is. Regardless, this adaptation is a patchwork of our reality.

So if Branagh's Cinderella isn't post-modern or pre-modern, what is it? My first answer, on seeing the trailer, is vanilla. Weeks after seeing the film, my answer is now "boiler plate."

This Cinderella is all the core things American culture "knows" about the story: benign mice, furious stepmother, and helpful magic. On seeing this version of Cinderella in the theater, it stopped being vanilla and started being an introductory text.

I believe Branagh's Cinderella is more complex than the lush but firmly artificial surface indicates. In a scene where she and the prince sneak away to a garden maze during the ball, he explains that he wishes to "show her something." 

So they enter a secluded courtyard together. 

Lily James and Richard Madden
Disney's Cinderella (2015)
Any chance that this scene would end in coitus is quickly snuffed when we see the swing where the prince directs our heroine to sit. She does so and he pushes her. When she gasps in delight as the swing rises and falls back, it's unironic but encumbered by innuendo. The movie audience I was with laughed intermittently.

Similarly, the song she sings to unknowingly gain the prince's attention at the end? Its original lyrics are much bawdier. It could be assumed Branagh is scrubbing away the more lascivious themes of a woman attracting a prince and marrying rich, but I hope audiences, young or old, will understand that this Cinderella is as bafflingly innocent as that swing.

Like Brandy singing, "In My Own Little Corner," or Houston's dynamite "Impossible," this is the inoffensive Cinderella a fairy tale aficionado consumes before she becomes a fairy tale aficionado. This is the bedrock on which she builds her understanding. She comes in liking the dresses and leaves searching for more versions.

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac (1910)
She finds stories that complicate the characters, like Gregory Maguire's Tales of an Ugly Stepsister with its survivalist stepmother and lazy heiress, Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted where the main character is cursed to take orders from birth, Anne Sexton's poem where

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story. 

and the multiple authors who retell the story in dark and joyful versions in every volume of Ellen Datlow's landmark Snow White, Blood Red Anthology Series.

Maybe she learns about the Aarne-Thompson Classification system. She learns there isn't just one Cinderella, there's a documented species:

AT 510 The Persecuted Heroine (Love Like Salt)
AT 510A Cinderella
AT 510B The Dress of Gold, of Silver, and of Stars (Tattercoats)

Cinderella is multiple and singular, identifiable in theory but infinite in variation. She is hundreds of years old and, if the popularity of the box office is any indication, hundreds of years young. Cinderella has been in and will be in adaptations that are cheesy, authentic, racist, sexist, empowering, classist, or class-transcendent.

She--or, to drop any pretense here--I looked at Lily James' Cinderella and said, "I know you." I remember her from exploring the Internet in search of what fairy tales actually were and why they commanded the power they did.

As for her passivity, it waxes and wanes depending on the audience's reading of the character. Author Melissa Grey mounted a fairly successful defense of Branagh's Cinderella as a narrative of overcoming abuse.

If Cinderella's circumstances really are perilous, it's not in her power to be the tough, resourceful Danielle from Ever After, with her knowledge of sword-fighting and her take-no-nonsense attitude. The only option James' Cinderella has is to endure. Much like many women in history, much like the fairy tale itself, the power fantasy is that she will overcome circumstances she can't control by surviving.

Branagh and James offer a Cinderella who's a blank slate but that gives her the same appeal as the folk tale. She's a theater screen on which one can project possibility. The movie and its animated ancestor are a gilded invitation into a fantasy world. This invitation is not just to enjoy the ball, though, but to ask questions, to plunge deeper into the fairy tale on a quest to make it one's own.