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Lily James, who stars as Cinderella, was chosen for the role after the film’s producers viewed ‘hundreds’ of audition tapes.Jonathan Olley/The Associated Press

The voluminous skirt of her Cinderella dress led the way as Lily James emerged from a back room.

Her pale skin was dusted with glitter. Her hair was golden. Her waist was tiny in the big, blue dress. She looked like a doll. "I don't really have organs any more," joked the then-24-year-old, known for her role as Lady Rose in the TV period drama Downton Abbey. "Everything is squeezed in and then pushed down." A corset cinches her waist to 21 inches. "I can only eat soup, no real food" when wearing the dress, she said in a whispered, girlish voice.

Aides had helped manoeuvre James and her dress through the threshold of a door, then guided her, magnificent as a ship, to a tuffet placed in the middle of a small sitting room. They lifted the heavy skirt so she could perch on the small stool – the only way she could sit.

Whatever you think of fairy tales, plenty are at play in the new Disney live-action remake of Cinderella, in cinemas now. Some are lovely – magical, even. Some are harmful. And all of them have that simplistic story arc that makes them so popular. Fairy tales aren't supposed to make you think – they're supposed to entertain. Which is why they can be problematic.

All of this was on display when I visited the set of Cinderella at Pinewood Studios outside London in 2013. It was certainly clear then that life had transformed for James. Kenneth Branagh, the film's director, had plucked her from near anonymity to star in the Disney blockbuster. "Hundreds and hundreds" of audition tapes had been submitted by aspiring Cinderellas, one producer told me.

And James was all aflutter about the chemistry with Branagh. "Working with Ken in audition, I did feel connected. I could respond to his notes," she explained with a private, faraway smile. "I never, ever thought I would get [the part]." She had to wait a month until she heard that the shoe fit (as it were). "I can't really believe we're nearly done [filming]," she said. The cast had completed a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, "and on my way home, I got so shaky. I thought, 'This is really happening.' "

And, you think, dreams do come true. How wonderful. Hope she enjoys her princessy moments on the red carpet.

Branagh's is an updated version of the Cinderella story. Gone is the retrograde script of a girl who needs to be rescued. In the remake, "had the prince not come along, Cinderella would have been okay," Allison Shearmur, a producer of the movie, explained.

But there's an aspect that's just as troubling for youthful female identity as the script with the prince who will rescue you: At its core, the new Cinderella message is "have courage, be kind, and all will be well." That's what young Ella – her name in the movie until one of her two stepsisters adds the "cinder" as a cruel joke – learns from her mother.

Ella's back story is that she lived happily as a child, just not ever after. Her beautiful, gentle mother dies unexpectedly and her doting father remarries, only to perish when away on business, leaving Ella with her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters.

Ella is good, alright, and kind to the point of passivity. The Good Girl myth lives on: She wins the great guy. She doesn't need to lean in. She doesn't even stand up to her bullying stepsisters and stepmother – all that's required is gentle pity for them. They have to live with their poor attitudes, after all. The good girl can find solace in being kind and loving even when she's banished to live in an attic where she plays with mice.

I don't know which is more disturbing – to think that the only way to be happy is with a life-saving prince, or to believe that you just need to be kind, accept injustices and wait for the universe to deliver what you deserve.

Branaugh reportedly pitched Disney on his approach to Cinderella by saying "kindness is her superpower." Which highlights the problem of fairy tales. They require such simplistic, one-sentence messages. There's little room for nuance. And the truth about human nature is that it's never black and white. Ella's got so much kindness and humility, you find yourself hoping that her fairy godmother (played by a campy Helena Bonham Carter) would give her some backbone.

To me, perhaps not surprisingly, the best part of the fairy-tale experience of Cinderella was being on set. That's where you see real magic happen, and start to believe in the possibilities of the imagination. There was a giddiness among those who were part of that made-up world. "There are different versions of the dress, with different lengths: one for the dance at the palace, one for the carriage, one for the swing [scene]," James explained in her breathy voice. An aide provided dressmaking data: two miles of material, 10,000 Swarovski crystals.

In an enormous sound stage, production designer Dante Ferretti led the way through the ballroom and palace interiors – a baroque fantasy of swags, fringes, gilded furniture and chandeliers like airships. Over 2,500 candles were used. The ballroom scene required 350 extras.

At one point, a wardrobe assistant brought out one of the eight crystal slippers made for the film. It was in a special, locked box. Donning a pair of white gloves, she set the shoe on a mirrored pedestal that rotated. Sandy Powell, the costume designer, described how she used a vintage shoe from 1890 as inspiration and decided to make each slipper "faceted out of crystal so it sparkles as opposed to solid glass or cut glass, which I thought made it look like a fruit bowl or an ashtray." They were made by Swarovski and only used as props – no foot can fit in one. In the movie, Cinderella wears leather shoes which are changed into glass slippers through visual effects.

The passageways around the edges of the set were filled with the art of make-believe – racks of fancy costumes, heaps of swords, a table stacked high with candles. It was a child's playground far from the real world.

Until an interview with Stellan Skarsgard, that is.

The Swedish actor plays the Grand Duke in the film, and he presented himself in full costume, perched on a fold-up chair in his fancy, gold-braided uniform and makeup. In 2012, he had done a risqué film, Nymphomaniac, with director Lars von Trier. "To make me show my penis is not very hard," he deadpanned. Was there anything he found difficult in his role in Cinderella? "The worst is I wear a thong-like thing, and I'm not interested in anything between my butt cheeks."

He laughed from behind his fake facial hair. The spell was broken.