Cinephilia: Karl Marx would have hated Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella

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Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Recessions, terrorism, and 9/11 have left a firm imprint on the kinds of films that have been produced in the last 15 years or so. Superheroes, a once shining beacon of hope, have become morally ambiguous. Many Hollywood films are nihilistic. Even Disney fairy tales that were once happy parables now focus more on tragedy and ambiguity. But Kenneth Branagh’s retelling of Cinderella isn’t one of them.

Last year two post-modern twists of old animated stories were released. Maleficent was Sleeping Beauty told from the villain’s point of view, and Into the Woods was a musical that weaved between many updated fairy tales while subverting their formulae, questioning happy endings and including darker subjects like adultery.

During a recent debate with a Marxist friend, she explained that she hated the classic heartwarmer, Sullivan’s Travels, just because it was enjoyable and pleasant. “What would Marx think?” she exclaimed. “It’s advocating a distraction for the masses, so they can forget about the oppression of capitalism.” For her, a film is good if and only if it is Marxist, depressing, and preferably experimental. Now there is the antidote to our capitalist ailments!

The tremendous irony is that Sullivan’s Travels is speaking against this very attitude. It’s about a wealthy Hollywood filmmaker who wants to make a serious drama about the lower class but discovers that accessible comedy is a far better cure for cultural madness than depressing “art.”

By my Marxist opponent’s criteria, our film industry should be in a golden age. Sadly, dark subject matter does not necessarily lend itself to profundity or, more simply, good filmmaking. All of this is to say that Karl Marx would hate Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella — and maybe that’s why I like it.

The film is so old-school (pre-15 years ago) that it almost feels inventive and fresh. None of the post-modernity, cynicism, and nihilism common in so many of today’s films is present in this one. Cinderella is poignant, sincere, and uplifting. Cinderella is a virtuous person dealing with extreme hardship in a way that is relatable and worthy of emulating. The story remains predictably close to the original classic, but excels in its polished execution.

The visuals create a fantastical but believable world by using sweeping camera movements through crane shots of landscapes and CGI visual effects that don’t feel phony. Sandy Powell’s costume design is eye candy, including the delicate contrast between Cinderella’s vibrant blue dress and the other drab, lifeless ones at the ball.

The film comes to life, however, through Lily James’ performance as Cinderella. She sells her inner beauty through genuine reactions to her sisters’ and stepmother’s cruelty, which makes the ending and the evident “happily ever after” that much more uplifting.

Distraction or not, the only thing oppressive at the movies today is gratuitous and unnecessary darkness. That’s probably why I responded so strongly to Kenneth Branagh’s glossy but simple Cinderella. Sullivan would be proud. The classic is back and it’s not in black.