Archetypes: Film: Review: ‘Cinderella’ (2015)

Walt Disney Pictures

Walt Disney Pictures

It’s certifiable eye candy, but the latest cinematic version of the Cinderella story also packs a pleasingly egalitarian punch while managing to tip its hat to Jungian psychology. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Cinderella gets its heady spirit from Chris Weitz’s screenplay whose recurrent and play-it-forward mantra is “Have courage and be kind.”

Young Ella, the fairy tale’s iconic protagonist-to-be, receives that advice from her dying mother (Hayley Atwell) and promises to live by those words. But doing so will prove a huge challenge a few years down the road, when Ella’s (Lily James) father (Ben Chaplin), a merchant, marries a cruel widow with a heavy dose of 1940s fashion sensibility, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). Ella’s newly installed stepmother – and her two harpy-like stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) – take up residence and, with Dad traveling most of the time, Ella is increasingly treated like a slave. When Dad dies, Ella is terminally relegated to the attic. Her sooty face – a result of her sleeping by the fire’s embers, as though she has taken on the role of Hestia, the selfless goddess of the hearth – results in her being renamed Cinderella.

Branagh’s Cinderella, based on the Disney animated movie from 1950, follows the narrative groove. After a particularly rough interaction with her step-relatives, Cinderella goes riding in the forest where she meets the prince, Kit (Richard Madden), who tells her he’s an “apprentice” at the palace. Both young people are smitten with each other and Kit arranges to host a gala open to the entire kingdom so that he might reunite with the young woman whose courage-and-kindness advice he has taken to heart. Forbidden by her captors from attending the ball, Ella gets an assist from her ditsy fairy-godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), who magically thrusts the girl into the right formal wear. (The wand-wielding winter-squash carb-explosion that turns a pumpkin into a gilded carriage is especially memorable.) A precious slipper is lost and its owner eventually found.

Walt Disney Pictures

Walt Disney Pictures

But there’s more to Branagh’s version than a simple replay and happy ending.

Cinderella bulges with profound Plutonic transformations, specifically of the protagonist’s identity, but also of clothing, creatures and domiciles. Evoking Hades’ kidnapping of Persephone in a bucolic field, the movie turns Ella’s ancestral home into an Underworld where her new name, created to ridicule, reflects her captive state. However, it’s while Ella is a prisoner that her courage grows, somehow conjuring the means – through an act of kindness to the disguised fairy godmother – to gain entry to the palace. Typically the task of male figures who rescue the damsel-in-distress, courage here is also the bailiwick of the female. Similarly, the often feminine-ascribed virtue of kindness is embraced by Kit. Here’s a movie where the female and male leads are able to embrace their contra-sexual sides.

The film also connects Lady Tremaine’s motives to Ella’s confinement. Overhearing a conversation between her new husband and Ella early on, Lady Tremaine realizes the extent of her being marginalized – the Feminine spirit that will forever live in that house is Ella’s deceased mother – and unconsciously projects her own anger and insecurity tied to not belonging onto her innocent stepdaughter.

For this heroine, finding her way back to her birthright starts from the nadir at the cinders crossroads, the site of the upward climb. The Sandy Powell-costume confections worn by the women guests at the ball look like large-scale edible meringue macarons. Cinderella’s psychological underpinnings? An unexpected and even tastier confection.

Archetype: Transformation.

Astrology Archetype: ♇ (Pluto)

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