Monday, 30 November -0001

‘I still believe in fairies’

As Cinderella gets a makeover, Kenneth Branagh and Downton Abbey’s Lily James talk to Melonie Clarke about Gus Gus the mouse, beautiful ballrooms and adding magic to the classic love story

Written by Melonie Clarke
When I was at school, each Christmas we would have a pantomime, and the year we staged Cinderella I was lucky enough to be cast in the leading role. Yes, I have been Cinders. So it was with bated breath that I went to see Disney’s new film of the classic fairytale, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Downton Abbey’s Lily James. And I’ll let you into a little secret: it’s brilliant.

But as a 25-year-old girl, should I really have enjoyed it? And isn’t it really just a children’s story? Well, according to the director, the answers to those two questions are, respectively, yes… and no.

‘I felt as though it was for everyone,’ Kenneth Branagh says. ‘When I told people that I was going to do the film I got a tremendous reaction… whether it was people saying, “Is Gus Gus [the fat, feisty mouse in the 1950 animated version] in the movie?” People were very keen to know about that. The level of interest was high. Maybe I felt we could do it for everyone.’

At the film’s heart, English actress Lily James swaps the lavish upstairs world of Downton Abbey’s Lady Rose MacClare for the rags and ashes of Cinderella’s downstairs life as she endures the tyranny of her wicked stepfamily. So what made her want to take the role?

Cinderella-Apr10-01-590Director Kenneth Branagh with Lily James

‘When I auditioned, there was a breakdown of the character… that said she had a generosity of spirit. When I was a child my dad would say those words, and I felt as though it just spoke to me,’ she explains.

So what does she think girls today can learn from the film? ‘That strength can come from within, this dignified strength and grace. And because of that she [Cinderella] finds such joy in her life regardless of her situation, even if it’s just talking to Gus Gus… I felt inspired playing her.’

The message of this latest production is apparent in what Cinderella’s mother says at the beginning of the film: ‘I want to tell you a secret that will see you through all the trials life can offer: have courage and be kind.’

Touching on that, Kenneth Branagh mentions Mahatma Gandhi, who embodied that philosophy during his peaceful struggle for Indian independence. ‘Seems like a crazy thing to talk about in relation to Cinderella,’ he says, ‘but I think it goes straight to the heart: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it always”.’

The costumes, by Sandy Powell OBE, add to the visual sumptuousness of the film. She has won three Oscars for costume design (for Shakespeare In Love, The Aviator and The Young Victoria) and hasn’t let herself down here. ‘It is a costume designer’s dream, it really is,’ she says.

‘What was great for me was it was a film where a lot of the main char- acters are women. I’d come straight from The Wolf Of Wall Street [starring Leonardo DiCaprio], which couldn’t be more different. It was a dream.’


The costumes, or rather Lily James’s waist measurements, have been the topic of much conversation, with many believing that her tiny middle was further slimmed in some way. ‘I don’t understand what the concerns are,’ says Powell. ‘Lily does have a small waist, but so do all the other girls in the film. They are wearing corsets because that’s what you wear with period clothes; it creates the silhouette. Everyone had small waists.

‘Lily’s dress is an optical illusion,’ she continues. ‘The diameter of the skirt is about two metres and then it has width around the shoulders, so it really does make the waist look smaller than it is.’

For James, what matters is the film’s key idea that you’re better off being kind than wicked. ‘That’s the message, and I just think why on earth are we focusing on something so irrelevant?’

Scottish actor Richard Madden, best known for his role as Robb Stark in Game Of Thrones, plays Prince ‘Kit’ Charming. How did he feel about his costume – in particular those rather ‘well-fitting’ trousers?

‘There is a certain degree of selfconsciousness when you first have your trousers on,’ he laughs. ‘You want to stand with your back to the wall, but then that exposes the front, so you want to have your front to the wall, but that exposes the back. Luckily, all of the guys, we were in the same boat, so we all felt as silly. But when you get on set the costumes feel really masculine and they fit in with these beautiful sets. You feel regal and they give you confidence, once you get over the initial embarrassment.’

There is a noticeable lack of singing in Kenneth Branagh’s version of the tale. Would the cast still have been up for the challenge if they’d had to hold a tune? ‘I would have still done it, for sure. I would have loved it – in fact, why weren’t there songs?’ Lily James asks Branagh, laughing.

Cinderella-Apr10-04-590Lady Rose MacClare after her marriage in Downton Abbey

Yet Richard Madden and Holliday Grainger, who plays one of the stepsisters, both feel otherwise. ‘I’d have loved to have done it with music, but I’m pretty sure that Ken [Branagh] wouldn’t have wanted me in it if I’d had to sing,’ confesses Grainger.

‘And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been cast,’ adds Madden.

For Branagh, lots of singing would have distracted from the plot. ‘The Disney animated film was full of singing and lots and lots of cat-and-mouse action, and we have so much else going on in the movie,’ he says. ‘We do have a sensational score anyway, so there is still a strong musical element.’

There might not be singing, but there certainly is dancing – in a spectacular ballroom, inspired by earlier films and constructed at Pinewood Studios. ‘Coming in the first time was amazing,’ recalls Lily James. ‘The ballroom was the most magical thing I’ve ever seen, and when I came in and everyone looked at me, I was terrified, but it was the highlight of the film for me as well.’

Madden says there was an awful lot of preparation for the dancing. ‘We always think of it as there being three of us in this relationship: the prince, Cinderella and the dress,’ he laughs. ‘I had to learn a new technique of dance, which was kind of like skiing, so I didn’t destroy the dress. We practised for a couple of months before we were allowed near the actual dress. I managed to tear up a couple of practice ones in the process. It took a lot of work.’

So after making the film, do any of them believe in fairytales?

‘Oh yeah – I still can’t help but believe fairies are real, and I’m sure witches are out there, too,’ says Grainger.

‘I believe,’ says James.

‘It’s nice to think that occasionally the universe will come and help us out in some way when we need it,’ Branagh smiles.

Cinderella is in cinemas now. 

Did you know…?

  • The earliest variant of the ‘Cinderella’ story is the Greek tale Rhodopis, recorded by the historian Strabo in the first century BC.
  • French writer Charles Perrault introduced the glass slippers in one of the earliest European versions of the tale, 1697’s Cendrillon (meaning ‘little ash girl’). There is a theory that he intended for the slippers to be made of fur (vair) rather than glass (verre). Perrault also added the fairy godmother. 
  • Cendrillon (1899), directed by Georges Méliès, was the first film version.
  • The classic Disney animated film was released on 15 February 1950, making Cinderella the second Disney princess (after Snow White). Live-action modelling was used extensively to save money, but the film still cost nearly $3m to make.
  • The moment when Cinderella’s dress is transformed was reportedly Walt Disney’s favourite piece of animation ever. 
  • Cinderella loses her shoe three times in the 1950 film – when she delivers the breakfast trays, when she is running away from the ball and when she is walking down the steps with the Prince as her husband.
  • Aschenputtel is the version of Cinderella by the Brothers Grimm, and is much more gruesome. The stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to make the slipper fit.
  • Rodgers and Hammerstein produced the first musical television version, with Julie Andrews as Cinderella. 
  • The first pantomime version of Cinderella, titled ‘Harlequin and Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper’, was performed in Covent Garden in 1820.
  • Florence La Badie (a major star in the 1910s) starred in a silent film of Cinderella in 1911. 
  • In 2008, the American Film Institute named Disney’s 1950 Cinderella the ninth best animation film of all time.

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