The latest film version of Cinderella pairs director Kenneth Branagh with Lily James, the unexpected delight of the later Downton Abbey episodes, in the title role. Since it's a Disney production, magic and mice are involved making Branagh's over-the-top style a potential plus. I've read the reviews, heard from friends who've seen the movie and watched assorted video clips. But I'm still not interested in seeing this iteration of the classic fable. As far as I'm concerned, Andy Tennant's 1998 film, titled "Ever After," is as good as it gets.
The biggest difference between the two films is that Tennant's version, unlike Disney's, is not a fairly tale. There are no animated animals or magic wands to make things happen here. The efforts of real people — Cinderella, her longtime artist friend Gustave, her father's servants and, yes, Leonard da Vinci — steer this story more in the direction of historical fiction than fantasy. The scene is Renaissance France where da Vinci actually lived, worked and died. Though the film has lots of anachronisms and dates that don't match up, I was so enthralled with the setting — and the sets — that none of it mattered to me.
"Ever After" was filmed in and around seven chateaux in the Perigord region of France rather than in England or Hollywood, resulting in an entirely different sensibility than this story typically evokes. Hautfort (top photo) is the stand-in for the home of the prince and his parents, while Cinderella and her family hang out in the more modest manor above. There are scenes bathed in golden light reflecting off of old stone walls, dewy peasant gardens with wattle fences and pristine palace parterres, monastic libraries, and even truffle hunting in the woods.
The film is bookended with the great Jeanne Moreau revealing Cinderella's true story to the Brothers Grimm, complete with the breathtaking "slipper," fashioned by Ferragamo. Drew Barrymore is a 20th Century Cinderella (who rarely goes by that moniker in the movie): educated, outspoken, willing to go to battle for those she loves and who love her, namely her father's few remaining servants who've known her since she was a child. She cleans up beautifully for the ball but more often she's messy and a bit dirty, able to throw, run and climb. And use words eloquently to free one man and enthrall another. This is a funny, feisty, witty woman who holds the screen — even when opposite her stepmother, played by a deligtfully diabolical Angelica Huston.
Huston is greedy, plotting and beautifully dressed. She vamps and camps it up but her wardrobe is pure middle ages with all the dramatic headgear (above). Huston is typically abusive to her stepdaughter but not exactly loving to her own daughters, snooty Jacqueline and fumbling Marguerite. The daughters are usually at odds with each other, especially as Marguerite slowly reaches out to our heroine. The prince is played by Dougray Scott who looks suitably glam in tights, on a horse, or using a sword. But he is pretty much a rebellious boy trying to find his way in the world until he meets our girl. In this film, Cinderella knows who the prince is from the get-go, though he doesn't recognize her in their many encounters as the peasant girl he met while stealing her father's horse.
Though "Ever After" has the traditional stepmother making life miserable for Cinderella, this story is much more about fathers: fathers and daughters (young Cinderella with hers, above), fathers and sons. Even the "fairy godmother" here is male and functions more as a surrogate father to both the prince and Cinderella, aiding their romance with wisdom and engineering skills. "Ever After" is a visual feast and an eminently satisfying story of a young woman who has the wherewithal to save herself. And she has the best ball gown of any film version of this story — and plenty of other movies as well.
The movie is available for streaming on Netflix. Note that it sometimes has a subtitle: "Ever After: A Cinderella Story."