Cinderella was Channel 4’s big budget production of the year 2000, written by Nick Dear (Lewis, Agatha Christie’s Poirot), and directed by Beeban Kidron (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit). Its big-name star is Kathleen Turner as the wicked step-mother, and who could resist tuning in to see what the husky-voiced temptress would do with the role?
Cinderella, like most folk- and fairy-tales, has seen thousands of retellings across the centuries, and different versions of the story exist throughout the world, each with slightly different details around the main plot of a dirty and poorly-treated girl who marries a prince. IMDB alone yields well over one hundred search results with the title ‘Cinderella’.
The story has retained its popularity for hundreds of years, and will likely remain relevant in any society where women are not in charge of their own lives and bodies, and where their only hope of escaping poverty is to marry a man who can provide for them. The fact that Cinderella marries a prince is wish-fulfilment in the extreme, and the DVD release for this version looks as though it’s been timed to cash in on the inevitable royal-wedding mania.
The details of a retold story evolve with the teller, and the society which they inhabit, and re-imaginings of archetypes and classics can be welcome and refreshing, especially when they subvert the tired old tropes. 1998’s Ever After presented a Cinderella who wasn’t actually in need of rescuing, and Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods gave us a Cinders who left her cheating husband and went back into the world to make a life for herself. This Channel 4 version was clearly hoping to do something similar, but on the whole it doesn’t manage it too well.
The character of Cinderella herself is very much up for interpretation. She has to be plucky enough to attend the ball, and dance with the prince, but other than that it’s all up for grabs. This Cinders (Marcella Plunkett) – named Zezolla, from an Italian version of the tale – is seen wandering across the moors, wild and free, and talking with the animals that she meets there. She is seen being kind to the family servant, Felim (Leslie Phillips), and pondering what to do with her life.
But right from the start there is little softness to her, and once her father brings his new wife and her daughters home, even before their true characters are revealed, she is hostile, moody, and self-pitying. She is barely likeable on any level, and I can’t imagine that this was the intention. My guess is that Marcella Plunkett was aiming for bewildered and grief-stricken, but overshot and landed at sulky and ungrateful.
There’s not an awful lot of emotion on show here, and little energy in the performance. Her step-sisters, who have taken her room (which, let’s face it, is selfish but not evil), offer her alcohol and cigarettes, and want to talk about sex, and Cinders is horrified. The tone is that they are trying to corrupt her, but really she just comes across as prudish and judgmental.
The step-sisters themselves, played campily by Katrin Cartlidge and Lucy Punch, are portrayed as empty-headed, upper-class twits, out to have a good time at any cost. In this version they are named Goneril and Regan, after the villainous daughters of King Lear, and if it wasn’t for this one might wonder whether they are knowingly complicit in the attempted poisoning of Cinders’ father or if they are just too dim to realise. One also wonders why they are so incredibly English – and then further playing at being English – when their mother is American.
Kathleen Turner plays wicked step-mother Claudette as a glamorous soap-villain, which is to say somewhere between serious acting and pantomime dame. She wants riches, and tells her husband – who has misled her as to the reach of his fortune – that “Frugality makes me very unpleasant to live with”. Her performance doesn’t disappoint, but it’s not enough to carry this entire dismal production, which doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Is it a straight-up fairy-tale or is it a pantomime? Is it set far in the past (the house is lit with candles), or is it modern-day (there are motorbikes and rock-music)? Who exactly is this production aimed at?
It’s unclear why Cinders’ father (David Warner) is so utterly beastly to her. And it’s unclear why, if Prince Valiant (Gideon Turner) is a whiny teenager and neither valiant nor charming, the viewer should be rooting for him and Cinders to get together. And if we don’t care about that, then what’s the point of this being their story? It is clear where the attempted humour lies, but for the most part it merely falls flat. Perhaps it’s deliberate that none of the characters are particularly likeable, and that the tone is all over the place – it’s been described elsewhere as being like a music video with its intermittent bizarre visuals – but if this was the point then it needed to work harder to achieve its goals.
There are some things about this production that do work. Although primarily based on various versions of ‘Cinderella’, it also makes use of other fairy-tales and stories, borrowing elements from ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Snow White’, legends of King Arthur, King Lear, and the Brontës. Particularly lovely are the slippers made of petals from the rose bush where her father and mother used to meet when they were first in love.
And it has a message for the viewer, imparted by servant Felim, that love “is not like it is in the fairy-tales” and is actually quite hard work. Because Felim, we discover, is married to Mab – mermaid, witch, Lady of the Lake – but they are not together because she couldn’t live out in the world and he couldn’t live in a cave. And this relationship is the only one in the film that appears to be actually based on love. The rest – even Cinderella’s – are based on wanting something from the other person: taking, not giving. Perhaps it’s a cynical message, perhaps it’s merely realistic, but it certainly is unexpected.
There are quite a few fans of this movie out there, some clamouring for it on DVD, and one hopes that it will retain for them what they originally saw in it. For new viewers, however, unless you’re a hardcore Cinderella fan, this is one that you can afford to miss.