Entertainment & Arts

Branagh: From Shakespeare to Cinderella

The Prince and Cinderella Image copyright AP
Image caption The Prince (Richard Madden) and Cinderella (Lily James) take to the dance floor

If you know the films of Sir Kenneth Branagh there is something familiar about Cinderella's ballroom dance scene, when the Prince swirls her round in a glow of colour and light, all captured in bold, sweeping camera movements.

Branagh used a similar visual style in his big-budget 1994 film Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, in which he also starred as the overambitious scientist.

That film performed poorly at the US box office and marked a period in the relative wilderness for the hitherto golden boy of British theatre and film.

The experience may also explain Branagh's return to form as a first-league Hollywood director 21 years later, with his live-action Cinderella now a major box office hit.

He was always on sure ground with critically acclaimed cinematic treatments of classic Shakespeare and more recently opera such as The Magic Flute (2006).

Image copyright AP
Image caption Sir Kenneth Branagh with Lily James and Richard Madden at the UK premiere of Cinderella

Transferring that depth to mass-market family entertainment has been key to his breakthrough, starting with Thor in 2011.

Branagh went out to LA to pitch to direct Thor, the Marvel film that transformed the fortunes of the comic-book-based studio.

Not an obvious choice, he convinced them to let him inject Shakespearean grandeur and acting into Thor's Norse mythological world.

Like an Elizabethan actor-manager he draws on an evolving "company" of great and diverse stage actors (Anthony Hopkins as Odin in Thor, Derek Jacobi as the ageing King and Nonso Alozie in Cinderella) prepared to put in deep preparation.

Branagh's awards

Image copyright Reuters

Twenty-nine wins and 56 nominations, including:

  • 2010, Bafta - Wallander, best actor
  • 2009, Bafta - Wallander, best drama series
  • 1993, Bafta - Michael Balcon Award
  • 1990, Bafta - Henry V, best direction
  • 2012, Oscar nomination - My Week With Marilyn, supporting actor
  • 1997, Oscar nomination - Hamlet, best writing on existing material
  • 1993, Oscar nomination - Swan Song, best short film
  • 1990, Oscar nomination - Henry V, best director and best leading actor

Richard Madden, who plays Prince Charming, said he was made to read Machiavelli's Renaissance text on statecraft, The Prince.

Perhaps most importantly, Branagh emphasises brilliant, damaged villains who win legions of adoring fans.

Hungry for success

He has compared Tom Hiddleston's Loki in the Thor films with Cate Blanchett's femme-fatale stepmother.

Branagh is clearly a master, not the slave, of the computer-generated imagery (CGI) effects demanded of both superheroes and Cinderella's impressive transformations.

It is a lesson learnt perhaps from the CGI-mad disaster of Wild, Wild West (1999), in which he played the scenery-chewing villain.

Crucially, Branagh is hungry for mainstream success, making a straight action film Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) to prove it.

Image copyright Publicity
Image caption Cinderella's evil but stylish stepmother, Lady Tremaine, played by Cate Blanchett

As he told The Scotsman recently: "I wanted the chance to do something in a form where more people would see it."

Cinderella, shot on real film stock, looks sumptuous, but Branagh has had to defend it against accusations from some critics that the movie is too old-fashioned and does not do enough to challenge the passive endurance of abuse in the traditional story.

Dark disagreements

At the Berlin Festival premiere of the film he said Cinderella has "a strength of character that is sort of a form of non-violent resistance".

Disagreement with Disney over the darker version conceived by the original signed director Mark Romanek is reported to be the reason the American left the project in 2013.

Disney's Maleficent (2014), a live-action retelling of the 1959 Sleeping Beauty from the wicked fairy's point of view, suggested a desire to play with darkness, though many critics felt it fell short of its promise.

However, Maleficent did well with audiences and, in the light of Cinderella's similar success, Branagh's upbeat approach appears to be the template for the live-action remake projects ahead.

Cinderella on the big screen

Image copyright AP
Image caption British actress Lily James plays Lady Rose in Downton Abbey
  • Cinderella: 1950, with Ilene Wood voicing Cinderella
  • The Glass Slipper: 1955, with Leslie Caron
  • The Slipper And The Rose: 1976, staring Richard Chamberlain
  • Ever After: A Cinderella Story: 1998, Drew Barrymore plays Danielle
  • A Cinderella Story: 2004, Hilary Duff plays Sam

The Jungle Book, starring Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson and Idris Elba, is scheduled for release in 2016.

Like Lily James in Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast will star another Downton Abbey alumnus, Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) as the Beast alongside Emma Watson as Belle.

Remaking classics

By strange coincidence, there is a Frankenstein connection for its director, Bill Condon, who made his Hollywood directorial debut with his own screenplay of Gods and Monsters about the celebrated 1931 Frankenstein horror film.

Tim Burton, best known for his own love of the Gothic, is back with Disney for Dumbo after Alice In Wonderland (2010), which - even more than Maleficient - defied poor reviews to be a huge box-office hit.

Disney now owns both Marvel and the Star Wars franchises and appears to be committed to a major strategy of remaking its back catalogue of animated classics for a modern family audience, and building on the worldwide success of its new animated princesses in Frozen.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Cinderella goes to live with Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger)

Rival Universal studios is thought to be going back to its own classic catalogue for remakes. It has had mixed success with dark fairytale reboots.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) fared much better than Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters (2013) or Jack The Giant Slayer (2013).

Universal turns out to have been ahead of the game though, with its remake of The Mummy (1999).

Now it is thought that Dracula and Frankenstein may well be brought back to life.

In a way, it is all thanks to Branagh, who has proved that with courage as a superpower and a little Disney magic anyone can be transformed into Hollywood royalty.

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