Friday, November 21, 2014

Trailer: Cinderella

Another day, another big screen fairy tale adaptation. Hollywood still hasn't relinquished its  fascination with the genre, for Cinderella follows on the heels of Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty (or rather, Maleficent) and not one but two takes on Snow White. But unlike those other adaptations, which strove to deconstruct or subvert the source material, this feel (and certainly looks) like a fairly straightforward rendering of the classic Rags To Riches story.

I'm rather amused that the trailer isn't even bothering to pretend that you don't know this entire story back to front. The whole plot is laid out on a platter for you: that our protagonist's mother dies, that her father remarries, that her step-family is cruel, that she's nicknamed Cinderella, that she's prevented from going to the ball, that her fairy godmother makes it happen, that a prince falls in love with her, and that there are glass slippers involved.

I mean, no surprises here. It's the familiarity of the tale that they're trying to sell, with a few design flourishes to catch your attention. There's a whimsical aesthetic going on, especially in the deliberate garishness of the step-families' outfits and the fairy godmother wearing something that appears modelled on Glinda the Good Witch's massive frock.

However, between the ooh-ahh music and Hayley Atwell's sound-bites, they certainly aren't shy about slathering on the sentimentality. It reaches maximum glurge at some points, so hopefully it's a side-effect of the trailer that'll be considerably toned down in the film itself.  

And then there's Lily James as Cinderella. I'm well aware that when it comes to acting ability young actresses are held to much higher standards than any other gender or age group in the industry (it's almost a given that if you're attractive, it's assumed you got by on your looks as opposed to any actual talent), and that playing the embodiment of sweetness and light is probably the most difficult role anyone could ever tackle.

That said, she does come across a little bland here. The problem with Cinderella is that (like most fairytale heroines) she's entirely passive, caught in a story that often boils down to: "women are bitches, so go find a nice man who will help you escape from them."

I'll admit, "my" version of Cinderella will always be Ever After, a film that I've come to appreciate more and more as the years go by. Drew Barrymore has made some questionable career choices (anything involving Adam Sandler), but Ever After proved that she was a solid actress, one who gave Danielle intelligence, kindness, spunk and vulnerability without ever tipping her too far in any one direction. You could see why the prince was smitten with her, but at the same time she never feels like anything other than an ordinary, sweet-natured, well-read young woman.  

The film did well in combining a sense of realism with an ornate fairy tale atmosphere, and it alleviated the underlying subtext of catty girls/honourable prince by surrounding Danielle with supportive female companions, including at least one pleasant step-sister. (Of course, they also turned the fairy godmother into Leonardo da Vinci, so perhaps it all evens out).

But one particular line in this trailer sticks out: "You have more kindness in your little finger than most people possess in their whole body." So says Cinderella's mother to her daughter on her deathbed.

As it happens, I think kindness is the single most important attribute any human being can possess. It's also one of the most difficult things in the world to portray on screen or in writing, all the more so since the rise of the anti-hero has resulted in goodness being equated with dullness or self-righteousness in the minds of an audience.

For example, throughout Snow White and the Huntsman a variety of characters speak ad nauseam about the abundance of inner kindness that Snow White has.  Yet what appears on-screen is a just reasonably nice young woman. Not a bad person by any means, but hardly a paragon of goodness, and what acts of kindness she does render aren't anything that any other half-way decent human being wouldn't be capable of achieving.

Depictions of kindness on-screen usually have to be conjoined with acts of bravery if they're to have any sort of impact. Little gestures and pleasant words are basic indicators of good manners, but they're not difficult to perform, and they can just as easily be used by manipulative people toward evil ends. It's only when compassion spurs a person to take risks or endanger themselves or extract some sort of personal toll that an audience can be properly impressed by the trait of kindness.

Kindness is also something that can't happen in isolation, even though loneliness is an essential part of what makes the Cinderella story possible (there are no other relations to take her in). But kindness involves at least two participants: one to give and one to receive. This is something the Disney film resolved by making Cinderella's mouse friends anthropomorphic, complete with clothes and speech, so that she might have companions to extend her friendship to.

There's also the trouble of equating kindness with passivity, for most depictions of Cinderella show her suffering nobly under the yoke of her stepmother, quietly absorbing her verbal abuse, too good to raise her voice or fight back. And that runs the risk of making her a pushover, especially since she takes no real affirmative action throughout the course of the story. Ever After recognised that being angry was not the same thing as being bad, and added a scene in which Danielle is finally pushed to the brink of tolerance and delivers a well-deserved punch to her step-sister's face.

Where am I going with all this babbling? Only that in having made a statement that Cinderella is kindness personified, I hope the film finds a way to a) depict this in a way that goes beyond feeding pet mice, and b) makes it one facet of a much more nuanced personality. For as harmlessly sweet as Lily James is as Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey, she doesn't seem to do much in this trailer besides cry and gasp.


P.S. If you want a story in which a girl's active and consistent kindness impacts the plot in extraordinary ways; kindness that is a challenge to extend but born out of genuine empathy toward others, please track down Meredith Anne Pierce's The Darkangel. It's a problematic book in a number of ways, and one day I'll write that giant meta I've always been meaning to do, but in terms of how to use kindness as a character virtue that has a deep and abiding effect on the plot, no other novel I've read has done it better.

P.P.S. Wow, this post ended in a very different place from where it started. I was just going to briefly comment on a trailer...

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