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film review

Lily James stars as Cinderella and Richard Madden stars as the Prince in Kenneth Branagh’s time-honoured classic.Jonathan Olley

Like its titular fairy tale heroine, Cinderella is sincere, not an ironic bone in it. Once upon a time, there was a beautiful bedtime story narrated by Helena Bonham-Carter (also the fairy godmother of the tale) about Ella (Lily James, in a reprise of her sweet-natured Lady Rose on Downton Abbey), a lovely young woman who followed her late mother's advice to have courage and be kind no matter what. After her beloved father's death that meant no more meadow picnics and horse-shaped clouds but a life of servitude to her nasty step-family. Until one day in the woods she meets a handsome, charming stranger who called himself Kit (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones' Robb Stark). Eventually, they live happily ever after.

That simplicity is the point here and frankly, it's refreshing. In being faithful to the traditional tale interpreted by Disney in their animated 1950 classic, this Cinderella is crisp escapist enjoyment.

None of the too-knowing gags, revisionist subtexts or ironic asides of recent fairy-tale renderings – instead, director Kenneth Branagh delivers a guileless, sumptuous, picture-perfect Perrault fantasy. The production design is as textured as the plentiful gold galloon and filigree (what is not gilded is still picturesque – such as Ella's dusty attic refuge, not so much a garret as a loft) and the romance floats on cinematography – the swirling dance at the palace ball, for example, is dizzying and exhilarating in equal measure, like a turn on the Magic Kingdom's spinning teacups ride.

Cate Blanchett more than obliges as Cinderella's venal, venomous stepmother Lady Tremaine, so swathed in opulent gowns that she practically perches sidesaddle. The familiar makeover and metamorphosis sequences especially shimmer, as fairy godmother waves her wand to conjure a suitable retinue from the critters at hand, a feat later effected in witty comedic reverse sprouting webbed feet, beaks and tails from their livery as they careen home at the stroke of midnight. While Ella's gown and glass slipper ensemble may be pretty, her carriage's creation story is downright wondrous: as it expands, the humble pumpkin splinters through hundreds of panes of greenhouse windows, into thousands of twinkling glass shards that spray into the night sky; there, they transform, slowly cascading down as the glitter dust of magic. It's quite an enchanting spell.

This being Branagh, he does sneak in a scene of Shakespearean swashbuckling and a thesp or two (such as Derek Jacobi as the ailing King); though all the sincerity doesn't mean that watching the brief, deliciously tense tête-à-tête between Blanchett and Stellan Starsgard, her corrupt castle counterpart the Grand Duke, we wouldn't also happily follow them into a malevolent spinoff tale of their own.