Movies, and of course lady movies, are a recent revelation of the last century, but the stories they tell predate even the printing press. The best example of this is probably Cinderella. She has existed in some form or another since the 1st century, when the Greeks dramatized the story of the Thracian courtesan Rhodopis. She was a slave woman who was bathing when an eagle stole her shoe and gave it to the king. The king traveled everywhere until he found her and married her. A 7th century Chinese variation, Yeh-Shen, is about a servant girl whose koi fish gets killed by her step-mother. She buries the fish bones, and its spirit helps her meet and marry the king, while also raining stones upon her step -mother and -sisters. Good times.

 

Although few elements are found in every variation, the basic gist is that an impoverished or enslaved young woman overcomes a neglectful family, usually by posing as someone of higher social standing, but only after she reveals her true self.

 

At surface value, Cinderella plays into the status quo: powerless women need men, and becoming a princess is the ultimate achievement. But when you dig past its surface and look at why this basic folk story has endured, it gets super terrifying. The Cinderella story is the folklore equivalent of back-masking – those urban legends that playing heavy metal records backward could summon the devil. Played for a large audience, Cinderella is perfectly acceptable pop culture. But young girls tuned into the right frequency, playing through the oft-told story in their minds, get a different, very subversive message: we are more than domestic work. We can save ourselves by being good and open to love, but we can’t necessarily do it alone. We, regardless of our past, deserve dignity. It’s powerful stuff, and though the messages often evolve for the time period, they are always there, speaking empowerment to women. It’s dark magic of the highest order.

 

While there are many Cinderella stories put to film, I’m going to look at just two today: Cinderella (2015) and Ever After. Both are primarily based on the 1697 Charles Perrault version of the story, with the latter borrowing just a touch from Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm (because they jacked it from Perrault and Bob Ross-ed it with some happy trees). This is the version we’re most familiar with because Disney used it as the basis for their 1950 animated Cinderella. It includes a fairy godmother, pumpkin carriage, glass slipper and delightful magical animals, but unlike several older iterations, does not include any torture or punishment for the step-family at the end. In fact, the biggest difference between Perrault’s version and Disney is that the step-sisters get to marry lords after they apologize. Perrault actually out-weirded Disney by sqaushing female competition in favor of forgiveness. What a creep!

 

CINDERELLA

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Chris Weitz

Key Cast: Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter

 

In Short

We just went over this, but as a refresher, Cinderella gets stuck with her evil step-family after her father passes away. They force her to live in the attic and treat her terribly. She meets the prince, but does not realize he is a prince, and he does not know she is a servant. Although her evil step-family tries to keep her from the ball, her helpful fairy godmother steps in and recruits her animal friends to act as attendants. She and the prince dance and fall in love, but she has to leave him in a hurry, abandoning her shoe. He searches the kingdom for her, and succeeds in finding her. They live happily ever after.

As Cinema

The movie is beautiful – rich colors, exciting visuals, and brilliant costumes. Cate Blanchett slays as the evil stepmother, giving her a little bit of pathos instead of making her straight-up evil. Lily James and Richard Madden make for an appropriately cute couple, playing into the generic archetypes created by the Disney cartoon.

 

My biggest problem with the story is that the dialogue gets pretty repetitive. On her deathbed, Cinderella’s mother tells her to “have courage and be kind.” One could create a drinking game around how many times this is repeated verbatim throughout the movie and get a pleasant buzz. For all the sumptuous visuals, the script feels so light that the overall effect is like a wedding cake: beautifully decorated, but not much value as either dessert or nutrition. It also does a disservice to the cultural legacy of Cinderella. Each retelling should offer something fresh and new for young girls. This didn’t. In fact, by the time of its release, Ever After had already done it better on film, and Ella Enchanted killed it as a YA novel. We’ll conveniently avoid discussing the film adaption of said wonderful novel. Even in Disney’s original animated version, there were mouse shenanigans and a beautiful dance sequence set to “So This Is Love.” Sure, movies can be fluff, and Cinderella might just be a princess movie, but Kenneth Branagh, who has directed some great Shakespeare adaptations, should be better at respecting a cultural legacy.

 

As Horror

The only horror analogue I can really draw is I Know What You Did Last Summer – a horror film that knows the tropes, but is neither scary, nor clever in its dissection of tropes. Cinderella is just about the same, but with a powerhouse performance by Cate Blanchett. She’s like Sir Anthony Hopkins in the first Thor movie – excellent work in the middle of a cotton candy jumble. It is probably no coincidence, then, that both these movies were directed by Branagh.

 

EVER AFTER

Director: Andy Tennant

Writers:  Susannah Grant, Andy Tennant & Richard Parks

Key Cast: Drew Barrymore, Dougray Scott, Anjelica Huston, Melanie Lynskey, Patrick Godfrey, Megan Dodds

 

In Short:

After losing her father to a heart attack, Danielle is forced to work as a servant in her own home for her stepmother Rodmilla and her two stepsisters, Marguerite and Jacqueline. She encounters the prince a field, clocking him with an apple when he tries to steal her horse. He pays her for her silence. She uses the money to go to court and rescue Maurice, one of the servants that Rodmilla sold to pay her mounting debt. Dressed as a countess, she draws the attention of the prince, Henry. He frees Maurice for her, but they continue to argue. She leaves him with a fake name – that of her dead mother. Their conversation sticks with the prince, who is facing a potential arranged marriage. He continues to seek out Danielle as the countess. Meanwhile, Rodmilla and Marguerite attempt to get the prince’s attention, hoping to make Marguerite the next queen. Eventually, they learn about Danielle’s accidental charade and tell the prince that the countess is engaged. However, Danielle, with the help of visiting artist Leonardo da Vinci, makes it to the prince’s ball before he announces his arranged engagement to a Spanish princess. Rodmilla exposes Danielle in front of the entire court, and then sells her to a merchant to fully rectify her debts. Da Vinci scolds Henry for being unwilling to listen to Danielle. Henry realizes his error and goes to save Danielle, but she has already freed herself. He apologizes, and they get married. Jacqueline, who has been kind to her, helps her lure Marguerite and Rodmilla to court, where they are stripped of their titles and banished to the palace washrooms. Danielle and the prince live happily ever after.

 

As Cinema

Ever After lacks the stunning visuals of Cinderella, but makes up for it with fully-formed characters. Drew Barrymore as Danielle contains multitudes, showcasing believable intelligence, vulnerability, stubbornness, and courage. Dougray Scott as Prince Henry is most definitely “a man who was still a boy in many ways.” And Anjelica Huston paints a picture of a woman who has lost two husbands and probably never experienced much love. She is a hard woman, but a human, and she engenders as much sympathy as she does blind rage. We understand why Danielle wants her affection, but also why it’s fitting that she ends up a lowly laundress.

 

The writing is impeccable, paying homage to the Perrault’s fairytale without winking. The improvements it does make – a master of science and reason in lieu of a magical godmother, and a heroine who saves herself and collects her shoe later – are done not out of maliciousness, but because it understands that a Cinderella story is meant to send a message relevant to today’s audience.

 

The Horror

Where do I begin? If you’re averse to lady movies, this could be the scariest thing you ever see. At one point, Danielle flat out tells Prince Henry that he is arrogant because he refuses to see the joy in life because he does not live with convention. She is the terrifying love child of Michael Myers and Darth Vader, possessed with singular purpose and drive, containing a life force that could uplift an entire kingdom. Not only is she in love, but she lives her life in a way that practically forces Henry to love her back. And Henry, the less-than-charming prince, the poor delicate man victim, goes for it. If that’s not Force control, then I don’t know what is. She’s so powerful that she gets Henry to come to the castle where she was held captive and revel in the way she rescued herself, without his help. Even Emperor Palpatine would pee himself at that sort of depravity.

 

And it’s not just Henry under Danielle’s spell. Great thinker, artist, and inventor Leonardo da Vinci is also enchanted by the way Danielle takes areas of study not meant for women and bends them to her will. It’s almost as if science and reason demand that we be connected and learn to love in order to live – a terrifying thought indeed. Da Vinci replaces the traditional magic of the fairy tale, so easy to dismiss, and forces us to consider that perhaps love is the logical conclusion. HP Lovecraft couldn’t come up with anything so scary, and he specialized in turning nature against man.

 

In keeping with sending covert messages to women throughout the ages, Ever After updates its ancient incantations, not only reminding women of their value, but reminding them to find value in other women. Rodmilla, Marguerite, and Jacqueline are women who have faced tragedy. Rather than hating them and exacting revenge, action movie-style, Danielle chooses to have sympathy. Rodmilla can barely love her own daughters, forcing one to be a relentless social-climber and constantly berating the other for her weight. The one real conversation she has with Danielle, she reveals that her own mother was similarly horrible, and we, along with Danielle, realize it’s all she’s ever known. Marguerite is following in the same pattern, and while Jacqueline is far from perfect, Danielle accepts what kindness she does offer with grace. This idea that women don’t have to relent to jealousy, that we’re all pawns in this crummy patriarchal society, is as dangerous and upending as MacReady’s paranoia in The Thing. Forgiveness is terrifying, it’s wrong, and it will get us all killed, or worse, married with a happily ever after in short order.

 

If Ever After feels like too much for you, I understand. This is advanced-level stuff, no matter how good it is. Dip your toes instead into the Cinderella legacy with the 2015 movie or the 1950 animated feature. It’s safer there, and you’ll get a taste of a dark and beautiful folktale without a series of sleepless nights.

 

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  1. […] “Fear the Chick Flick“: Film Takeout‘s Samantha Garrison contrasts this year’s “Cinderella” remake with the Drew Barrymore classic, “Ever After.” […]

  2. […] “Fear the Chick Flick“: Film Takeout‘s Samantha Garrison contrasts this year’s “Cinderella” remake with the Drew Barrymore classic, “Ever After.”  […]