It’s been over a month since Cinderella premiered in theaters, but we still haven’t stopped talking about it. Over on our personal Tumblrs, we can often be seen crying about how beautiful the film was and how much it meant to us. Furthermore, it was an extremely negative review of Cinderella that led to us starting this website, so we felt a review was in order.
You could say that this was the beginning.
My friend Jess was in town. Basia was in Mexico visiting her boyfriend. We were both planning to see the film the day it released: Friday, 13 March, at 7PM (in respective time zones). We laughed. We cried (seriously. I hope that I never have to watch Hayley Atwell die on screen again. Ever). We fawned over the costuming and cinematography. We fangirled over Cate Blanchett (a lot).
Saturday dawned, and I opened my laptop. I read one negative review of the film and turned into a seething mountain of rage. I messaged Basia. “I know you’re in Mexico,” I told her, “but I need you to read this so we can seethe together.” (Ah, friendship.) She agreed, thankfully, and the next half hour was spent alternatively seething about the rather cynical review’s perception of Ella as a weak character despite much evidence to the contrary and our own desire to start a website of reviews stemming from an optimistic, positive approach.
And thus, seething with what we might even term a righteous fury, we began to lay the groundwork for what eventually became Femini.
We both saw the movie again within the week, but this time I took notes. Yes, it does have its faults, the biggest one being that the diversity is remarkably lacking (one in the top eight roles is a person of color, which is… ridiculously low. Like, ridiculously low). The reason Ella stays in such a horrible situation with her stepfamily is only briefly touched upon: her parents loved this house, and now she loves it for them… which is not the strongest of reasons, really.
I don’t want to downplay those, especially the first: they are big issues in film in general. The fact that I was surprised to even see a single person of color in any kind of leading role speaks volumes—and not in a good way. There are plenty of controversies out there where white people are playing roles that should be played by people of color.
(Seriously, does anyone actually think ancient Egyptians were white? Yes? Read a history book, for Pete’s sake. Yes, I am looking at you, Exodus: Gods and Kings.)
There are also controversies about roles where no clear ethnicity is present but white people are still primarily cast (which seems to be the case in this movie). These are important issues, and we don’t want to minimize them or belittle them in anyway: we are well aware of our privilege, so please let us know if we are, to put it briefly, doing anything stupid.
Have courage, and be kind.
I would like to take this moment to thank the world for somehow conspiring to give us Hayley Atwell. I will expand on my love of Hayley Atwell at a later date, but it is worth mentioning here simply because I need to state that I never want to watch her die on screen ever again. Ever. I ugly cried, y’all. Twice.
Celebrity crushes aside, these words of advice will stick with me for quite some time. Have courage, and be kind… there is power in that. And this scene—this beautiful, heartbreaking scene, full of big furniture and wide shots that pan out in such a distinctly visual way that makes it very, very clear that Ella feels very, very small—this scene sets the stage for the rest of the film.
Because there is power in kindness, and Ella believes that. It occupies her mind at every moment. Whether she is talking to her animal friends and telling the mouse Jacqueline that “we ladies must tick together,” whispering a halting thanks to Farmer Brown for delivering the most devastating news of her father’s death, telling Kit that her stepfamily treats her “as well as they are able,” or taking one of her precious last moments at the ball to tell the king how very wonderful she thinks his son–Ella lets her mother’s words sink into her very bones.
It takes courage to be that kind. From what I saw in this film, Ella has courage in spades.
And yes: it falters. Yes, there are moments when her courage fails her—speaking gently to her father about her mother, asking if he misses her; weeping in the garden when her stepsisters have destroyed her ball gown and dashed her hopes of seeing Kit again. There are moments of weakness and, more often, of weariness: the sort of tired that seeps into the soles of your feet and makes you curl up by the fire instead of climbing the stairs to your bed.
Showing weakness does not make Ella weak. On the contrary, the film does an excellent job of rounding her character through giving her space to grieve and weep as well as spaces to thrive and smile and grow. Even when she is at her absolute lowest point, when the last dream of affection and acceptance has been stripped away with the layers of her mother’s gown, Ella remains true to herself. An old woman asks for refreshment; despite her sadness, her tears, and even despite the tattered dress that was all she had left of her mother, Ella stands and finds some milk for her visitor.
And as the old woman says, “What is warm milk? Nothing. But kindness makes it everything.” Again: there is power in that.
The ball scenes alone would make this film worth seeing. The sweeping shots of the chandeliers and staircases and swooshing of the ballgowns are enough to make your head spin. When Ella arrives, though, the spinning stops. From a musical standpoint, her entrance echoes the “Lavender’s Blue (Dilly Dilly)” that we hear her mother singing in the beginning of the film: she still has her mother’s dress, it’s just been dolled up a bit. You even get to see a classic staircase descent as the entire room draws to a halt and Ella walks towards Kit.
If this isn’t enough, both she and Kit are tearing up when they see each other. I’ll admit it: I’m a sympathetic crier. Between the music and the cinematography, I lost it a little bit at this point. Neither of these characters has had a particularly easy childhood. Yes, Kit lives the privileged life of a prince in a castle with plenty of servants, and yes, he seems to be quite close to the captain of the guard (played by the absolutely wonderful Nonso Anozie). His kingdom, however, is small. The other nobles seem much older than Kit himself—we never see him interact with any peers, not even at the ball.
While he led a much more comfortable life than Ella, he seems to be almost as lonely. That is partially what draws them to each other, I think: a subtle understanding that the other, too, has seen hardship, albeit quite different than their own.
In any case: they’re almost crying, the entire crowd is shocked at her appearance, and after one and a half beautiful dances (I do so love a good choreographed dance scene), Kit and Ella have the gall to disappear entirely and visit the palace gardens, where we get a preemptive look at how the whole glass slipper debacle will go down in the end. They speak with ease and comfort, enjoying the other’s presence. The clock’s striking wakes Ella from her daze, and she dashes out of the garden (but not without a quick, polite word of thanks).
With the lizard and the goose and pumpkin coach all back to their original state and her stepfamily safely ensconced in their beds, Cinderella slips into her attic room and curls up in her mother’s chair. The direction here mirrors the scene of her mother’s death: the chair is the same Haley Atwell graced earlier in the film, and we see the same wide shots that make Ella seem so very small.
(Side note: we see the same sort of shot once more after this, as the king lays dying on his broad, broad bed. The camera pans up, leaving Kit curled in the fetal position next to his deceased father, until we see the very tip of the bed frame arching over them like a subtle angel’s wings. These parallels reinforce the idea that despite their different circumstances, these two characters are cut of the same cloth and can, surprisingly, empathize with the other’s situation.)
[Basia’s note: I also pointed out once during our many conversations about this film that this wide shot of Kit also serves to connect us, the audience, to Kit, as well. He might be a prince, but not in that moment. In that moment, he’s a scared boy whose father is dying. He’s young, and he’s lonely, and we have all felt that kind of smallness. It’s not just showing us that the prince has a way to connect with Ella, a “country girl”; it’s also showing us that he can connect with us, the audience, who most likely do not have any kind of ties to royalty. He might be a prince, yes, but he’s also just a young man.]
As the film draws to a close, Ella runs to retrieve the glass slipper she has in her room. Instead she finds her stepmother in a chair, flaunting the glass slipper.
I could write an entire essay about Queen Cate’s portrayal of Madame/Lady Tremaine. Her characterization is so complex and so absolutely subtle in its cruelty that I was quite frankly in awe of this scene. It would have been very easy to play up the stereotype of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother: wicked, wicked, greedy, wicked, all for no apparent reason other than coldness of heart. Here we see Madame’s side of the story: a woman who loved, who lived pleasantly, but whom life has treated very ill indeed and who has reacted in a way that, despite its cruelty, is driven by self-preservation. She uses that to justify her means. Whether those means are marriage or blackmail, Madame will do what it takes to care for herself and her daughters.
“Kindness is free,” Ella tells her stepmother as they stand in the attic. “Love is free.”
(Queen Cate scoffs and locks her in the attic.)
In addition to Madame’s treacherous temper, we are now dealing with a search that surpasses the kingdom. On top of that, we have the Grand Duke ([Basia’s note: randomly played by Stellan Skarsgard]) tugging strings here and there to send the searches awry and prevent the prince (now King, actually) from finding Ella. Does she meet the prince a third time? Is she able to defy Madame’s wishes for the stepsisters to be wed into nobility? Does Kit accept Ella as she is, a country girl with no dowry or parents or anything at all, save kindness and courage?
Well, it wouldn’t be Cinderella without a happy ending. With the help of the captain of the guard and a truly marvelous verbal smackdown between him and Madame, we reach ours (the second time I saw this, a frat bro yelled YESSSSS after Nonso Anozie finished challenging Ella’s stepmother. It was beautiful).
So yes, Ella meets her prince: but not as Ella who ran free with her parents, learning French and dancing on her father’s shoes. Not as Ella, the girl who lost her mother and her father and who stays and stays and stays because the house is all she has left of them. She has not been Ella for quite some time; names, as the narrator reminds us, have power too.
They stand together; she in her blue dress, he in his green jacket—the same outfits they wore when they first met. That feels fitting: she is introducing herself to him properly, so the parallels fit. Ella takes all of her experiences—the good, the bad, the lovely, and the painful. She takes the nickname her stepsisters gave her in spite and ridicule and, not to sound too cheesy, but rises from the cinders as courageous and kind as ever.
She tells the prince her name is Cinderella, and so it is. Kit takes her hand, and as they exit, she turns to her stepmother and doesn’t yell, doesn’t glare, doesn’t even smirk.
She remembers her mother’s words. She takes hold of her courage, and she speaks in kindness. “I forgive you.”
So does the prince rescue her? In a manner of speaking, I suppose. More realistically, I think, they rescue each other. Yes, Cinderella leaves behind her wicked stepfamily and goes to live in the palace as queen of the land. But the prince also gets to marry for love, not to extend the borders of the kingdom. From their very first meeting, they challenge and encourage each other. Cinderella challenges him to consider whether he wants to be a man who blindly follows traditions or one who thinks for himself and for the betterment of his kingdom. Kit challenges her to remember that while her stepfamily may treat her ill, it is through no fault of her own.
Whether or not you believe in love at first sight, you can’t deny that these two understand each other on a very profound level. Have you ever met someone and just, say, clicked during that first conversation? Walked away with a new friend instead of a new acquaintance? That’s what these two have. They understand each other on a level that, sure, might seem a little cheesy. I’ll admit that, especially given the balcony scene at the end. It’s Cinderella. It’s going to be a little cheesy. Sometimes the world needs a bit of cheesy to see it through. We could all use a happy ending every now and then, and Cinderella is definitely one to give us that tiny bit of joy.
And so we end the movie as we began: with a reminder that we don’t always have to see the world as it is, but as it could be with kindness, courage, and a little bit of magic.
[Basia’s note: I have only one more thing to add to this review. Two words: crotch. bulge.]