Our newest Ella is no regular Cinderella. She dreams of becoming a star dressmaker. Marrying the prince of her kingdom will have to wait.
Camila Cabello in Cinderella
We did not need another Cinderella story. And yet Amazon Studios decided to produce one more adaptation of the fairy tale. The makers of the latest Cinderella have tried hard to make it contemporary and it shows, sometimes a bit too forcefully.
Our girl is Latinx (not anyone but Camila Cabello!), ambitious, and vociferous, stuck in the basement of an old-fashioned kingdom. She does household chores for her stepmother and sisters by the day, and makes dreamy dresses in candlelight after the sun goes down.
The bare-bones structure of the story is the same with the usual frills. There is the unkind stepmother, the extravagant ball, the glass shoe, the charming prince who falls in love with Ella in a heartbeat, the midnight deadline, and the fairy godmother. But that’s about it. Director Kay Cannon has spun the story on its head, and imbued her women with gusto, will, ambition, and a strong voice. You cannot snub them easily. They want more, they call out, and they talk back.
Ella is no damsel in distress. Yes, she is unhappy with her present circumstance, and dreams of a better life but she does not want to break free sitting on horseback behind a prince. She wants to ride the horse herself. Yes, she believes love will save the day but she is also aware that she is “one in a million” and wants the world to know it too. She goes to the ball but not in the hopes of meeting the prince and falling in love with him. She has already met him, and expressed her disinterest in being a party to such an antiquated tradition. She attends the ball to network, meet, and connect with potential clients. Love happens perchance, and even when it does, she does not let it take the center stage of her story.
In most Cinderella retellings, the makers are so obsessed with their heroine that they seldom shift their lens to allow anyone else. But Cannon makes no such mistake. She has given other, often ignored female characters a lot of pulsating lifeblood and meat.
Take the stepmother (Vivian; played by Idina Menzel) for instance. She is not unreasonably cruel. Cannon pads her with a backstory to humanise her. It addresses the ‘why’ of her actions, ensuring she is not reduced to a one-note money-hungry villain. In fact, at one point, Vivian asks a reluctant Ella to marry the prince to help elevate the family. This scene would have been considered blasphemous even a decade ago but today, it is not. Rather, it makes Vivian’s character more layered, humane.
It is the same with the queen and the princess. I do not remember them from any other Cinderella movie. But in this one, they stand out. They are as dissatisfied, wanting, and strong-headed as Ella. Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) is no silent martyr to quietly put up with her husband’s insults and snubs. She calls out the king on his hypocrisy and foolishness every chance she gets (once in front of the entire citizenry). She also demands of the king the romance they once had, and ensures she gets it back.
Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive), meanwhile, aspires to rule the kingdom. Unlike her brother, she is truly interested in the welfare of her people. Though rebuked every time by her father over it, she does not give up and eventually gets the throne she deserves. She reminded me a lot of Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ Ayesha Mehra from Zoya Akhtar’s 2015 Bollywood film Dil Dhadakne Do. Both women are cornered by patriarchy but they do not cave in. They do not let their families drown their ambition, and they finally sidestep their brothers to establish themselves as the rightful heirs of their empires. You want to raise them a toast, pat them on the back, and tell them well done. You want other girls to see more examples like them so they know it is possible.
Unlike other popular fairy tale adaptations that have tried to be feminist but ended being just another rehashed version of the age-old tropes (Emma Watson-starrer Beauty and the Beast and Lilly James-starrer Cinderella instantly come to mind), Amazon Studios’ Cinderella is an attempt in the right direction. However, in giving voice to its women, it renders its men spineless. It reduces King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan) and Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine) to such cardboard caricatures that it hurts. Choosing one gender over the other is not feminism. Making room for both to thrive is. I hope our storytellers realise it sooner than later.
Cinderella is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.