Cinderella's Sisters

I hope Kenneth Branagh will excuse me for saying it, but the actor and director (famed for his Shakespeare on film, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thor, and other such intellectual pieces) is looking rather handsome and dashing at present. My sister’s birthday request was a trip to see Branagh’s latest directorial offering. I’d seen pictures of the beautiful Branagh at some premiere or other, and wondered if this was a new look for the director or whether it was evidence that I am undergoing some kind of personal crisis. I was so befuddled, nay bewitched, by Branagh’s beauty that I assumed we were going to see Branagh’s latest Shakespeare extravaganza. All the ingredients of a Branagh Shakespeare were there: beautiful costumes, sets with colour symbolism, a score full of emotional crescendos, and Derek Jacobi. Actually it was Cinderella.

The stand-out characteristic of this film was its beauty. Richard Madden (Prince Kit) and Lily James (Ella) were grinningly, ecstatically beautiful, Cate Blanchet (the Step-Mother) had a malicious but poignant beauty, and Helena Bonham Carter was the glitter-festooned fairy godmother I’ve always wanted. The sisters, The plants, the tragic mother and father, the extras, and the animals were all utterly flawless. I could go on for pages about the costumes, which I think should win a prize. The aesthetics were perfect, the music was emotionally edifying, and I left the cinema grinning. The film was everything I would have wanted it to be when I was a child, but was it what I wanted as an adult? That is the question. Was there any way in which the Cinderella story could be usefully told in the 21st Centrury? Surely, from a feminist, Marxist, or ecological perspective, or in fact from any perspective, the story is bankrupt. It’s a story about women cruelly competing against one another to gain wealth and security through marriage. One must crush the others in order to succeed. The heroine wins because she is prettier, has tiny feet, is very good at housework, and because she enchants flora and fauna (implying that these are the natural slaves of humanity) to help her. Say it with me: PLEASE!

I have to admit that I think Old Branagh actually managed it! The universal beauty in the film meant that Ella’s distinctive feature was her courage and her kindness. The lesson that children in the audience went home with was not the usual one, that women must be beautiful and silent to succeed, but that they should be strong, brave, and good. In fact, when the narrator (the magical Bonham Carter) said at the end of the film that the world could be improved if you “believe in courage, kindness, and a little bit of magic” there was an abounding shout from the children in the audience of “I do! I do!” Prince Kit falls in love with Ella because of her ideals and her capacity to think about right instead of convention (although the hunting metaphor is a little clumsy). Ella falls in love with Mr Kit, not with the idea of riches. Finally King Claudius – oops I mean Derek Jacobi – retracts his conservative edict that Kit must marry a princess because he is charmed by Ella’s good intentions and kind words as she leaves the ball, not as in many versions of the story, by her beauty.

Hands down the most interesting performance in this film came from Cate Blanchett as the wicked step-mother. In her first appearance Blanchett’s character is crass and materialistic (not quite as extreme as “wicked”). Her animosity towards Ella seems to be sparked by the competition created between them by Ella’s father. In the middle of a party the step mother over hears her husband telling Ella that he only loves her and he misses her mother. Tears spring to the step-mother’s cat-like eyes, and so her persecution of Ella begins. When a faithful retainer informs Ella that, in his last moments, her father spoke only of her, there are no messages for the late merchant’s wife. Again, the subtlety of Blanchett’s performance implies that she has been injured by this slight and will respond with an attack. At this point life gets much worse for Ella, but does not reach a pitch until another ma (the prince) enters the story to create a competition between the women. Rather than presenting the women in the story as rampantly evil, wicked, and ugly of soul, the step-mother’s perspective serves to show that these negative and competitive relationships between women are imposed upon them by the patriarchal society in which they live. When a select (male) few control wealth, and women’s only hope for security is to marry wealth, then competition is inevitable. Luckily, it seems that Ella and Prince Kit will be courageous and kind enough to seek to change this system. This subtle critique of women’s roles in Branagh’s rendering of Cinderella was what, for me, made the film truly uplifting.

In Shakespeare too we see a competitive patriarchal system introducing discord into female relationships. King Lear’s Goneril and Regan are perhaps the figures in Shakespeare closest to the ludicrously mean ugly sisters of the Cinderella story. While the morals of the two sisters are questionable from the word go, at the start of the play they are working together. In Act 1 Scene 1, the sisters function as a unit, using a plural pronoun: “We shall think further on’t”.  It is only when Edmund comes between them that they turn on one another, going as far as murder. The patriarchal structure at work in the world of King Lear is damaging to both men and women as both are forced to compete for parental love. A patrilineal structure turns Edmund into a villain as he must oust his brother in order to gain his father’s benison. Meanwhile, though Lear offers to split his kingdom, the sisters are forced to compete with one another for their portion, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most? / That we our largest bounty may extend / Where nature doth with merit challenge.” This division sets the plot in action and sows the seeds of discord. Similarly, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream competition initiated by a patriarchal system (i.e. the need for women to marry) tears apart the closest of female relationships. Hermia and Helena are described as “Like to a double cherry, seeming parted, / But yet an union in partition; / Two lovely berries moulded on one stem; / So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart”. This beautifully rendered relationship is soon torn apart as they squabble over the men in Act III Scene II. The rupture in this relationship is depicted as comic and voyeuristically entertaining. In fact, in the 1999 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Hermia and Helena wrestle in their underwear in a pool of mud. Many women in theatre and literature are unable to be good to one another, but it would be lazy to imagine that this is just female nature. Each of these conflicts is created by a system which forces women (friends, sisters, mothers and daughters) to fight it out for the scraps under the table of patriarchy (which smells of rich mahogany). Women aren’t hard-wired to tear each other down and it’s time that the media, especially film (think Bride Wars), stopped rehashing that old fallacy and started to ask why this motif appears so often in our culture.

Me and my little sister

After the cinema my sister and I went for a lovely Italian meal at a restaurant in which the waiter jiggled his fresh lobsters in our faces. We had a lovely time chewing over the film and the risotto. I’m not saying that I never have violent urges towards my sister (I do), but generally we get on like a house on fire. We don’t have to compete for parental affection or an inheritance, as I’m pretty sure there isn’t one, and we don’t have to compete for the only eligible bachelor in the village because 1) we are allowed to get a job, 2) we are not required to be married in order to live away from our parents and 3) if we wish to meet men there are trains, cars, and Tinder. We are lucky to be part of a society in which the pressure is off for women and we can afford to be generous to each other. I think sexy Kenneth Branagh should bring a bit of that magic to his next Shakespeare gig.


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