If the shoe fits . . .

How on Earth did Ken­neth Branagh, Shake­spearean pro­tec­torate, sud­denly be­come a direc­tor of Hol­ly­wood block­busters? The Cin­derella direc­tor talks to Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY - writes Don­ald Clarke

Once upon a time there was a ter­rific young ac­tor from Belfast who seemed des­tined to be the new Lau­rence Olivier. Hav­ing wowed au­di­ences all over the land, he was anointed as the bard’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive of earth, and younger schol­ars ev­ery­where would thank him for his filmed adap­ta­tions of Ham­let, Much Ado About Noth­ing, and Othello, movies that made so­lil­o­quies much eas­ier to learn come exam time.

“I was at the gar­den cen­tre the other week,” says the 54-year-old Ken­neth Branagh. “And a teenager – clearly do­ing a week­end job – came up as I was pay­ing for the plant, say­ing: ‘I loved you as Iago.’ He had watched at school, of course. I love that those films make their way into peo­ple’s lives.”

So how on earth did Branagh, Shake­spearean pro­tec­torate, sud­denly be­come Mr Hol­ly­wood Block­buster? His live-ac­tion ren­di­tion of Cin­derella has, mere days af­ter it opened, al­ready shifted $253,616,793 in tick­ets for par­ent stu­dio Dis­ney. Add that to the $449,326,618 hoovered up by the same direc­tor’s Thor in 2011 and we have more than ad­e­quate walk­ing around money.

“Thor changed ev­ery­thing,” says Branagh. “I couldn’t tell you why they thought of me. I had just come off three films that hadn’t done so well at the box of­fice: As You Like It, The Magic Flute and Sleuth. They were all films I was proud of. But they didn’t move the dial at all. I wasn’t hot when I started a con­ver­sa­tion with [the pres­i­dent of Marvel Stu­dios] Kevin Feige. But the thing to re­mem­ber was that Marvel wasn’t what it is now. Sure, Iron Man had been a huge hit. But Hulk with Ed­ward Nor­ton hadn’t been what they hoped. And Thor was the one with the most pre­car­i­ous tone. So they were at that stage the lit­tle train that could.”

He must have had more meet­ings on that movie than he had for all the rest of his films com­bined? “Yes. There were a lot of meet­ings. ‘Where are you in the world of comics?’ ‘Can you man­age a bud­get on that scale?’ I was lucky be­cause Thor was the one I could re­mem­ber from Belfast. It was the ex­cit­ing one. I ba­si­cally had au­di­tioned for it with three of four pages that I wrote. And that changed how peo­ple saw me. They thought I was the Shake­speare guy. Jack Ryan wasn’t the suc­cess we hoped for but ac­cu­mu­la­tively it changed the stuff I was of­fered.”

Still, Cin­derella must have been a curve­ball. The fin­ished prod­uct may have paid off big at the box of­fice but many heads were scratched when a live-ac­tion ver­sion of Walt Dis­ney’s 1950 an­i­mated mu­si­cal film of the Charles Per­rault fairy tale was first an­nounced.

“Ex­actly,” says Branagh. “When it first came to me all I thought was, this is very un­usual. But that’s what made it ex­cit­ing and pretty chal­leng­ing. And I thought, maybe there’s a con­nec­tion with films like The Magic Flute or Thor. They’re all big pic­tures that have some iconic ob­ject at the cen­tre of them – a flute, a ham­mer, or, in this case, a pair of glass slip­pers. I started to see why they would per­haps come to me with some­thing like that. And then, when you do a bit of re­search, you re­alise this story has been around for two and a half thou­sand years. And sud­denly my in­ter­est in myths and an­cient tales and Shake­speare kicked in.”

Shed­ding tears

Branagh’s Cin­derella coasts along on a lovely sim­plic­ity. She’s not the weedy house-frau in wait­ing of the 1950 film, nor has she been disin­gen­u­ously given a fem­i­nist makeover. Charm­ingly, the film leaves its set de­sign and cos­tumes to pro­vide spec­ta­cle. It uses sat­u­rated colour rather than 3D, de­spite what Branagh de­scribes as “a full and frank ex­change of views” on the mat­ter.

“I cried a lot read­ing the script,” ad­mits Branagh. “I wanted to present in some small way what a func­tion­ing lov­ing fam­ily can be. And see what hap­pens when that is dis­rupted.

“I sup­pose my own ex­pe­ri­ence of los­ing my par­ents and that cy­cle of grief made that ma­te­rial fas­ci­nat­ing. I thought if we can see those as­pects we al­ready have a dif­fer­ent Cin­derella. This is only al­luded to in the orig­i­nal with half a line of dia­logue. It was like a se­cret film in­side a big­ger film with a lot of fun with mice and coaches.”

The project ini­tially had One Hour Photo direc­tor Mark Ro­manek at­tached. His vi­sion re­put­edly proved too dark for Dis­ney tastes. No one could say that about Branagh’s de­light­ful ren­di­tion.

“For me the light and shade is emo­tional,” he says. “I don’t want to cre­ate dystopian worlds. I don’t want to make the movie that tells you that ev­ery­thing is shit. I can’t think of any­thing more de­press­ing than to of­fer that to the world. Peo­ple have done all that to high doe, as my mother used to say. I want a way out. I’m a so­lu­tions guy.” I am re­li­ably in­formed by peo­ple who know more about such things than I, that Ken­neth Branagh is “cool”. It’s a Wal­lan­der thing. To­day, sip­ping tea in Dublin ahead of the Ir­ish pre­miere of Cin­derella, he laughs at the idea. The same ac­tor was, aged 21, the coolest thing in theatre. Un­til he wasn’t. His at­tempt to bring Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­stein to the screen in 1994 earned un­kind re­views. His light com­edy Peter’s Friends turned “luvvie” into a dirty word in cer­tain crit­i­cal cir­cles.

There was, with hind­sight, more than a touch of tall poppy syn­drome in the way com­men­ta­tors spoke and wrote about Branagh dur­ing the 1990s.

“It wasn’t very nice,” he says laugh­ing. “It hap­pens. But you process it. Some of it I wouldn’t ar­gue with. Peo­ple didn’t like the work very much. But some of it was very per­sonal. And you might ar­gue un­nec­es­sary. It was a bit bruis­ing, for sure. But no an­i­mals were harmed in the mak­ing of that pic­ture, as they say. When I look around now, I think it’s a fash­ion thing. Peo­ple just have enough of some­thing. You were great, now you’re ter­ri­ble. It goes with youth­ful promi­nence. And at least they didn’t have Instagram when I was start­ing out.”

We should not be sur­prised that Branagh, the mid­dle son of work­ing-class Belfas­tians, has turned out to be a re­silient, adapt­able fel­low. Still, he can’t have ever had to an­swer so many ques­tions about a dress be­fore: the Sandy Pow­ell-de­signed blue frock worn by Lily James in the film has be­come some­thing of a celebrity in its own right.

“You’re prob­a­bly right about that. All char­ac­ter ac­tors end up play­ing in drag even­tu­ally. But I’ve never got around to that. This isn’t my drag movie. But it’s def­i­nitely my dress movie.”

“The Dis­ney film I re­mem­ber best as a kid was Pinoc­chio. It haunted me in away. I couldn’t stop think­ing about those eyes.”

CIN­DERELLA

Di­rected by Ken­neth Branagh. Star­ring Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Mad­den, He­lena Bon­ham Carter, Nonso Anozie, Stel­lan Skars­gard, So­phie McShera, Hol­l­i­day Grainger. G cert, gen re­lease, 105 min No­body is likely to con­fuse Ken­neth Branagh’s ir­re­sistible take on a very familiar story with an art film, but, in its lack of ex­per­i­ment, this lat­est Cin­derella does feel pos­i­tively ex­per­i­men­tal. We have, over the past few decades, been stuffed to burst­ing with rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of clas­sic fairy tales. An­gela Carter’s fem­i­nist pars­ing formed the ba­sis of Neil Jor­dan’s Com­pany of Wolves. Shrek and En­chanted at­tacked from the main­stream. Stephen Sond­heim’s mu­si­cal Into the Woods. The bones have been stripped bare. Who would dare try and re­an­i­mate the beast?

The cur­rent ver­sion does men­tion Charles Per­rault’s 17th-cen­tury text among its cred­its, but that’s not go­ing to fool any­body. We are es­sen­tially look­ing at a live-ac­tion re­make of Walt Dis­ney’s 1950 an­i­mated film. Chang­ing times and chang­ing me­dia have dic­tated the most sig­nif­i­cant al­ter­ations.

Com­puter-gen­er­ated pho­to­re­al­is­tic mice be­ing that bit more, well, mouse-like, we get a great deal less an­thro­po­mor­phic cross-species chat­ter. Other sen­si­tiv­i­ties en­sure that Cin­derella’s step-sis­ters are now only “ugly on the in­side”.

Such tweaks aside, the film plays very much by the an­cient rules. We begin with young Cin­derella (Eloise Webb) shar­ing an idyl­lic ex­is­tence with sweet mother (Hay­ley Atwell) and kindly fa­ther (Ben Chap­lin). When mum dies, dad mar­ries a ghastly old battle axe who . . . Oh, why are we do­ing this? I may as well ex­plain the lay­out of your own bath­room to you.

Charm­ing leads. Next!

Noth­ing much need be said about the two ro­man­tic leads, who are charm­ing in the req­ui­site un­threat­en­ing man­ner. Play­ing the Prince, Richard Mad­den (Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) has had the dung wiped from his brow and has been squeezed into a much shinier, more brass-but­toned class of livery. As adult Cinders, Lily James (some­body or other in Down­ton Abbey) has just about enough vi­vac­ity to make virtue and self-sac­ri­fice seem in­ter­est­ing.

Never mind all that. It’s the vil­lains and the fan­tas­tic be­ings that liven up th­ese af­fairs. Cate Blanchett en­gages with Lady Tre­maine, the no­to­ri­ous step­mother, in the same man­ner that Godzilla en­gaged with Tokyo. Chris Weitz’s script does al­low Blanchett a de­gree of fi­nan­cial in­se­cu­rity by way of char­ac­ter devel­op­ment, and the actress in­jects some real pain into her jeal­ous glances at the favoured step-daugh­ter.

But such mild flesh­ing out, by nudg­ing her lady­ship away from the mythic, only serves to make her be­hav­iour all the more rep­re­hen­si­ble. Dressed in the man­ner of an As­cot at­tendee from My Fair Lady – Sandy Pow­ell’s de­li­cious cos­tumes will surely be nom­i­nated for an Os­car – Lady Tre­maine comes across less as a height­ened mon­ster and more as a bloody hor­ri­ble woman who needs to “see some­body” about her tem­per.

Blanchett, more than any­body else, gets the chance to demon­strate that fa­mil­iar­ity is the point of the ex­er­cise. Chil­dren who love to be told the same story over and over again will of­ten ob­ject, upon not­ing an al­ter­ation, that the teller is “get­ting it wrong”. Just as au­di­ences wait ea­gerly for “a hand­bag” dur­ing The Im­por­tance of Be­ing Earnest, they will surely purr when Blanchett flings her­self into “You shall not go to the ball.” He­lena Bon­ham Carter, goofy in gleam­ing teeth, is no less juiced-up as the Fairy God­mother.

“Get­ting it right” also means recre­at­ing that strange An­glo-Ru­ri­ta­nian Nowhere that Hol­ly­wood de­vised in the 1930s for Robin Hood, Ivan­hoe and The Prisoner of Zenda. The cur­rent candy-coloured ver­sion – in which Eng­land stands in for Cal­i­for­nia stand­ing in for “Eng­land” – is so richly strange and cul­tur­ally con­fus­ing that it might, accidentally, con­sti­tute the film’s one act of ironic sub­ver­sion.

That’s al­most cer­tainly stretch­ing it. This lovely film of­fers proof that there is still virtue in play­ing the game with a straight bat. If you re­quire any fur­ther rec­om­men­da­tion be aware that Cin­derella is not in stupid 3-D. This is won­der­ful news.

Ball-watch­ing

Lily James in Cin­derella

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