The first trailer for Walt Disney Pictures's Cinderella has just been released. Directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, the film stars Lily James (Lady Rose on Downton Abbey) in the title role, and the star-studded cast boasts Richard Madden (Game of Thrones's Robb Stark) as her Prince and Stellan Skarsgard as the Grand Duke. With thespians Derek Jacobi as the King and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother, it's also a sumptuous collaboration with three-time Academy Award-winning designers – costume designer Sandy Powell (Shakespeare in Love) and production designer Dante Ferretti. Also present and accounted for: the comically evil stepsisters Drizella (Sophie McShera, also from Downton Abbey) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). The Swarovski glass slipper would make haute-couture mavens green with envy – and green is the colour most often worn by wicked stepmother Cate Blanchett, awash in rustling taffeta gowns.
In keeping with Branagh's Shakespearean-stage bona fides, there is even some swashbuckling.
The Globe talked to the director, on the line from the coast of Sweden, where he is filming one of the final three TV dramas in the role of Henning Mankell's existential poet-detective, Kurt Wallander. Fresh from a day's shooting, Branagh suggests that Cinderella's goodness is a subversive superpower.
In the production notes you mention that you'd never thought of tackling a fairy tale before. What changed? And what made you want to do this one?
I suppose I became intrigued about understanding why Cinderella had this endurance as a myth, so that in itself was fascinating. Why is it that we so definitely identify with her, that she's the audience's representative par excellence? That we want to be on that journey with her? It's as if – if Cinderella is validated, if her story of hardship overcome, is successful, somehow it speaks to all of us and suggests that it can happen in our own lives, whatever the challenges. And fairy tales are literally fabulous, aren't they? [Telephone line disconnects abruptly, then reconnects] Did you storm off at that? [Laughs]
Oh no! You were just saying, I think, that fairy tables are fabulous, as in fables.
I just have this fairground image of how interesting it was to think of the sort of playground that is sometimes a grotesque reflection and sometimes a very flattering reflection and in a way that sort of dimension in the work was – I began to see – more familiar to me. I like working in worlds that are a little heightened in order to let whatever metaphor is in there for our own ordinary existences, if that's what we can call them, play strongly. It began to seem a much more natural place for me to work in than I realized. I hadn't imagined it before but then it became the most obvious thing.
I find that surprising, since fairy tales or mythology are at the root of so much of, say, Shakespeare, which you've explored; they seem to be natural siblings, they're not unrelated – certainly Thor [directed by Branagh in 2011] isn't unrelated.
I think you're right. I guess I had in a way underestimated in the primal form, the purest form, whether they could work quite in that way these days because the world is so cynical, as it were, that you needed to take these myths and put them in a much more dressed-up form. I am excited to say I won't, actually – I'm going to go back to the source so it won't be Cinderella in the 21st century, in modern clothes etc. It will be in what you might call the actual period, or a sense of what people might think was the actual period, and work from there to see if that becomes the way to entirely recreate and re-energize from the inside what it is about this story that appeals so strongly.
It's interesting that you say that, since we have had these contemporary reboots of mythology, fairy tales and even superhero mythology that tend to emphasize and explore a dark side – they have a darker tone to reflect the sort of malaise of the world – as you say, the cynicism. Yet from the trailer this Cinderella seems to have a very light touch – it's buoyant and bright. Was that your decision, to give this adaptation that lightness rather than go the other way?
In fact I felt we were being a little revolutionary – I felt we were doing a film unashamedly about goodness. Disney at one point picked up on this and said yeah, goodness as a superpower. And yes, maybe that's true, but it's also trying to access that quality without seeming self-righteous or pious, or too-good-to-be-true. I think Cinderella, in Chris Weitz's screenplay, can be funny and sexy and smart and kind, but she can turn the other cheek. She can, through knowing herself as she does, be totally at peace with these qualities. And I would call that real strength.
It seems subversive.
I think it is, a little bit. In this case, Cinderella has no sense of self-pity, no sense of being any kind of victim, she makes her own choices, she doesn't indulge in her own pain or regard her own hardships. She doesn't dismiss them – her life is challenging, no question – but she doesn't regard them as any worse or any more important than anyone else's. She looks outward with compassion. She feels sadness when life comes around but she is not disposed to be melancholy or tragic. She wants to enjoy the time she has.
You, or perhaps it was Weitz, in the notes are at pains to underline that she is the agent of her own destiny – not a passive participant in the whole princess culture and princess myth. But unlike the young protagonists in, say, Snow White and the Huntsman or The Hunger Games, she doesn't get to be an action hero either, or to be a heroine with physical prowess that might reflect that.
I think she has spiritual and intellectual heft. You feel the passion in her. We also dramatize those moments when a modern audience might legitimately say, "Why don't you just leave? Why don't you just go? Why is she taking that?" There are many different ways to do it. Some of it involves maybe punching somebody in the face if they're horrible [chuckles], but I personally would never recommend that. And sometimes it involves turning the other cheek and redefining what it is to be a fighter. She doesn't necessarily think you have to kick back at a world that is persecuting you to survive.
It's a hell of a cast – especially the strong female characters that I think back to, your Beatrice and Rosalind and others in your directing – strong women characters whether for good or for evil. In Shakespeare and in myth and certainly in fairy tales, the antagonists and villains can often be the meatier or at least more intriguing characters. Do you think that's the case with Cinderella's wicked stepmother?
I think that there is unquestionably a certain relish on the audience's part and an anticipation of what the role might bring. And when you then put Cate Blanchett in that part, it ups the ante. She delivers phenomenally well – in terms of the style of the stepmother she wears the most incredible clothes and jewellery. Sandy Powell has done a wonderful job and they both met this with such subtlety and depth, but it's full-blooded. With Cate, because she brings to all the work she does such complexity and subtlety, she doesn't have a need for sympathy – but there is in the doing of it an invitation to consider the stepmother in a different way. Not to dismiss her, but at the time you can entirely enjoy sometimes vicarious shuddering and being grateful that it is not you that she's being quite so cruel with! And it means that for Cinderella to overcome this means a phenomenal effort of her spirit and heart and soul by Lily James's character. That's why she's given such a formidable adversary. And Lily really holds her own against this screen titan – I think that makes for strong drama.
How do you react to the relatively new cult of anticipation, one that's cultivated now, that surrounds the release of major movie trailers months before they appear?
I've never heard it put quite like that, but that's a very smart analysis of the cult of it. I've always had hesitation about the almost crazy determination to leave works of art without mystery. And I think – back to your original question, why one gets drawn to something like this is that it doesn't matter how much we anticipate, it doesn't matter how many bits of the trailer they see, it doesn't matter how many times they see the movie or how much time we spend working on the movie: There is something in stories like this which goes way beyond that which we can quantify and contain. And that's what's thrilling about working on them because ultimately they cannot be fully explained or articulate or talked away. Because, to use another Shakespearean phrase, "there is magic in the web of it." You are involved in something that is much greater than the sum of its parts. I look at it now and watch it, and it continues to surprise me and continues to inspire. I think the classics have some kind of in-built future-proof quality against the dangers of too much anticipation.
Did you ever experience any of that anticipation yourself – a Gielgud or Olivier performance?
Frankly I get excited even now – about seeing a Daniel Day-Lewis performance or seeing a Sean Penn performance. But then I love to come to be in that darkened room with as little information as possible. I want to be peeling that onion live, without too much prejudice of advance info. With other things, I relish the enjoyment of it in many stages on the way to seeing it.
Cinderella opens in Canada March 13, 2015.
This interview has been condensed and edited.