Kenneth Branagh’s CINDERELLA is delightful. Shots of geese early in the movie foreshadow the role one such creature will play in getting our long-suffering heroine to and from the ball. But the imagery also suggests that Mr. Branagh’s film is going to be silly. Unashamedly sentimental and melodramatic, never above slapstick to get a laugh, it is, after all, for the kids.
Yet the movie is clearly stamped with the mark of its auteur. When Ella is first smitten by the prince she mistakes for an apprentice, the director has her sing a ditty from Shakespeare’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. During a stag hunt, Mr. Branagh uses tracking shots that recall the Battle of Agincourt in his glorious production of HENRY V. And that film’s “chorus,” Derek Jacobi, plays the king in CINDERELLA, here to assure viewers that performances will be as well-honed as they are in all Kenneth Branagh films.
Thus what might have been an insufferable iteration of an old Disney franchise is, instead, exciting cinema – so exciting it brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s THE MAGIC FLUTE. The usually brooding Swedish director opened his movie with shots of his awestruck daughter listening to Mozart’s buoyant overture; the opera, of course, is also “for the kids.” And Bergman’s filmmaking, like Branagh’s in CINDERELLA, was as masterful as it had ever been. Excellent craftsmanship is apparent in the pace achieved by longtime Bergman editor, Siv Lundgren, and in the exquisite cinematography of the director’s erstwhile partner-in-film, Sven Nykvist.
Collaborating with the same talented people from picture to picture is always a boon to filmmakers. Its value is evident in Bergman’s teamwork, as it is in Fellini’s partnerships with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and composer Nino Rota, Hitchcock’s associations with cutter George Tomasini and composer Bernard Herrmann and Woody Allen’s long runs with designer Santo Loquasto and editors Susan Morse and Alisa Lepselter. Over the years, from movie to movie, directors and their teams develop a shorthand communication that makes the work easier and better.
The list of similar such collaborations is endless, and surely includes – to come back to CINDERELLA – Kenneth Branagh’s work with composer Patrick Doyle. Mr. Doyle’s contribution to the Disney fairy tale is as enormous as it was to HENRY V. In that picture, his music enhanced the Peckinpah-like ferocity of the Battle of Agincourt as well as it underlined the deep emotions of Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech. In addition the music unified the movie’s many varied tones.
Mr. Doyle’s scores are an integral part not only of Mr. Branagh’s Shakespeare films (including HAMLET, MUCH ADO, TWELFTH NIGHT and AS YOU LIKE IT along with HENRY V), they lift spectacles like THOR, MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN and CINDERELLA high above mere commercial fare. (Although Mr. Branagh’s LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST is one of my cherished guilty pleasures, it’s not completely successful, in part because its soundtrack consists primarily of old standards; Patrick Doyle wrote only incidental music for the picture.)
The emotional colors of CINDERELLA, like those of HENRY V, are, indeed, diverse. While at times the movie is “as silly as a goose,” it’s also infused with the sadness of loss, the melancholy of class distinctions and the romance of young lovers so smitten they ignore the rigid rules of social stratification. There’s the heart-quickening tension of deep and magical secrets almost exposed, there’s vengefulness and forgiveness. There’s the suggestion that all will end badly (even though we know it won’t), there’s the giddily happy ending. And all are woven into a coherent whole by Patrick Doyle’s rich symphonic underscore.
Many CINDERELLA viewers, like myself, found themselves welling up from beginning to end. That, too, is a result of the composer’s rich, melodic music. Of course the score is manipulative. But the reason we watch a fairy tale, in the end, is to have our emotions played with.
And after the final cathartic cry, Mssrs. Branagh and Doyle bestow a little gift upon those who sit through CINDERELLA’s tail credits. As the titles roll on, Mr. Doyle’s original music ends and his arrangement of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” (from the animated 1950 Disney feature), now sung by Helena Bonham-Carter, takes over the soundtrack. Also known as “The Magic Song,” “Bibbid-Bobbidi-Boo” is the perfect coda to the magical experience of Mr. Branagh’s movie.
I left CINDERELLA thinking I’d just heard a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score next February. When Wes Anderson’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was released this time last year its brilliant balalaika music by Alexandre Desplat made me feel the same way. M. Deplat’s soundtrack was brilliant, but I wondered if the Academy’s music branch and its general membership would remember it eleven months down the road. They did and GRAND BUDAPEST’s composer picked up the coveted trophy. I won’t be surprised if Patrick Doyle does the same for CINDERELLA.