Since at least the age of Milton, whose Satan in Paradise Lost allegedly outmatches the other characters in depth and dynamism, artistic depictions of evil have often been associated with power and interest. So it’s not surprising that many critics approached director Kenneth Branagh’s rococo new version of Disney’s Cinderella on the stepmother’s side. “Bad always sizzles more than good,” Manohla Dargis proclaimed in the New York Times. Other critics noted with genuine puzzlement that the title character manages to be compelling in spite of her moral goodness. Where is the dramatic appeal, they wondered, in a conventionally virtuous character?
Branagh’s film offers a surprising answer. In this version of the fairy tale, Cinderella, or Ella, played by Lily James, handles her signature suffering and abuse by maintaining not a dream of marrying a prince but a more abstract belief in selflessness and kindness. Her inner strength is such that when a wise alteration to the familiar storyline makes it so that her coming forward to claim the glass slipper would endanger the prince, she peacefully accepts the loss. Some critics have attributed this decision to waifish silliness, a lack of constancy or resources. And through the lens of a culture that increasingly enshrines sensual self-expression through romantic love as its primary virtue, of course Ella’s decision to sacrifice her love interest looks tragic and absurd. Her behavior becomes, for every viewer who was expecting something different—that familiar narrative about the triumph of romance, for example—interesting to watch.
Meanwhile, the stepmother and stepsisters, despite their vaudevillian antics, fail to steal the show. For vice, this film perspicaciously observes, is linked not to personal power but to an artistically and intellectually restrictive struggle to gain the upper hand over others. When the royal ball is announced, the stepmother (played by the always-formidable Cate Blanchett) is determined to get to the dressmaker’s before other customers so she can demand the best materials and the latest designs. Later, she tries to convince Ella that “Nothing is free—for everything you must pay and pay.” Ultimately, the stepmother and her daughters are stunted by their own spiritual stinginess, with the stepmother descending into a cold stupor the moment her chance to snatch more resources runs out. The last time we see her, she is slumped against a bannister, mute, and numb.
Ella, in contrast, commands attention precisely because of the way she enacts her profound inner freedom. Her goodness is a valuable reminder that virtue, in a fallen world, will often appear fresh and strange. Ella’s kindness to animals approaches the standard of St. Francis—at one point, she joyfully thanks the family’s hens for providing eggs—and she offers sustenance to a strange beggar woman who appears at her door. Even the death of her mother early in the film does not bind her to worldly habits of bitterness. When her mother pleads forgiveness for leaving her, the child Ella replies, with striking openheartedness, “Of course I forgive you!” At the end of the film, she forgives her stepmother as well.
Ultimately, Ella’s union not with a prince but with, in this version, a king, makes profound dramatic and symbolic sense. She is qualified to fill the role of an earthly monarch because she has sought for and attained a kingdom of another kind: She has an interior castle, as well as a drafty attic, to retreat to. Though the film does not have any religious aspirations, it has a great deal to say about the notion that the Kingdom of Heaven is within—“not far from any one of us,” as St. Paul (Acts 18:27) would say. This is an unusual message for a well-heeled studio picture to deliver. But it is welcome in all seasons.
Kathleen Hull is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.