There's no empowerment message embedded in Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, no "Girls can do anything!" cheerleader vibe. That's why it's wonderful. This is a straight, no-chaser fairy story, a picture to be downed with pleasure. It worries little about sending the wrong message and instead trusts us to decode its politics, sexual and otherwise, on our own. And face it — kids have been left on their own to decode the politics of fairy tales for centuries. Like all of Branagh's films, even some of the bad ones, his bold, rococo Cinderella is practically Wagnerian in its ambitions — it's so swaggering in its confidence that at times it almost commands us to like it. But it's also unexpectedly delicate in all the right ways, and uncompromisingly beautiful to look at.
But what you'll miss if you do! As the primrose-radiant Lily James (of Downton Abbey) plays her, this Cinderella never comes off as a simp, maybe thanks, in part, to James's sturdy, storm-cloud eyebrows: She's a princess with presence. No wonder the mice of the household adore her — they chatter their thanks as she upends a teacup to make a dinner table for them. This is the first Cinderella I can think of where the prince is a thoughtful young man confounded by sorrows and challenges of his own. And say what you will about Branagh's notorious ego: When he makes a movie, he makes a movie, a grand marvel of visual details and gestures that laughs haughtily at the idea of being watched at home on a TV screen.