EVER AFTER: A CINDERELLA STORY

Directed by Andy Tennant
Running time 120 mins
Certificate PG

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl called Cinderella, who lived with her wicked step-mother and two ugly step sisters.

Everyone knows the story of Cinderella. Well, everyone with any experience of growing up in a house influenced by any form of Western culture, apart from one friend of mine but we think he had a strange upbringing, so he doesn't count. Basically, the Cinderella myth is common cultural currency.

Therein lies part one of the problem of making a film of Cinderella. Everyone knows the story, so you've got to make it interesting in every re-telling or they won't want to hear it yet again. Part two of the problem is the reason why everyone knows it. It's incredibly short, virtually memorisable verbatim. How do you turn a ten-minute bedtime story into a two hour movie?

Actually, the answer is very simple and contained within the title of this latest version of the story. It's not Ever After, it's Ever After: A Cinderella Story. There's not a single, definitive version of Cinderella, nor even merely rival stories. In total there are around 500 different versions of the story, each adding or emphasizing subtle nuances. The film actually opens with the still wonderful Jeanne Moreau debating the merits of the various versions of the story with the greatest archivists of Western folklore, the Brothers Grimm. As this scene implies, all you have to do is maintain the central core elements: a girl, treated as a servant by her family, whose true nature is seen by a prince, who then hunts high and low for the one woman he can truly love. That's Cinderella. Everything else is mere dressing. Ever After is not a new take on the story but just someone's else's own, personal version.

So what kind of version have director Andy Tennant and his co- writers Susannah Grant and Rick Parks created? At a simple level, one could say that it's a feminist take on the myth, a statement that will cause great angst and alarm in certain quarters. The idea, some would argue, that Cinderella's story can in any way be regarded as feminist is insulting, for she merely escapes one form of servitude, as a servant, for another, as a wife. Personally I regard this as the kind of comment made by spoilt brats that wouldn't know a solid day's toil if it bit them on their professorship and that they are therefore singularly ill- qualified to compare mucking out rancid pig dung and being treated, as within the core Cinderella myth, as a person to be loved and adored with care and compassion. But that's just me talking.

Cinderella, here called Danielle, is not necessarily the traditional Cinderella, the willowy angel of the hearth that is more at home in a palace than a grate but suffers her lot with a glad heart. She likes it in the grate. As played by Drew Barrymore, she's rambunctious, smart, strong and sweet of nature. Nor is she some ludicrous flower-picking fey creature, waiting to be whisked away by some dashing young hero. She's a dreamer, but not an unforgivable romantic. She believes in the ultimate nobility of all creatures, quotes More's Utopia and will follow through on her beliefs. She's great.

If there's an element of revisionism about her character, her world is pure fairytale land. It's the seventeenth century, the high tide of the Renaissance, the birth of modern European philosophical and social thinking. For those of you desperately agog, on the edge of your seat, waiting for the ballroom sequence, then you'll glad to know that this film is what a certain group of my friends refer to as gown-tastic, all flowing frocks, sumptuous furnishings and undergarments the size of Padua. The architecture is all France, clipped hedges, mazes and towers: the language is English, the perfect story-telling language and much the combination that Disney's Beauty And The Beast employed to great effect. It's a world of charming rustics, sinister barons and wicked, wicked stepmothers.

Kind of.

The environment may be the same, simple idealistic world that one would expect from a fairytale, but the characters are more than just plot ciphers. Take Cinderella's family. To have them be malicious just for malevolence's sake would be facile and nowhere near enough to maintain the story for two hours. Instead, the wicked stepmother hates Danielle because she resents her: ultimately, she was her father's one true love, forcing her eternally into the shade. Rarely has Anjelica Huston employed her sinister regality to such effect as when she thrusts her scheming eldest daughter, Marguerite, at the prince. The ugly step-sisters are also much altered, mainly by not being ugly. Megan Dodds' Marguerite is convincingly pretty enough to catch a prince's eye but so wonderfully selfish as to appear hatchet-faced by the end. The other sister, Jacqueline, is actually on the side of the angels. Played by Melanie Lynskey, aka the one who wasn't Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, she's podgy and docile but ultimately well-intentioned, physically and emotionally more like Danielle than Marguerite.

In addition to the to the new version of the family, there's a new cast of side-kicks, mainly built around loyal family retainers, but there has to be a special mention somewhere for the mighty Richard O'Brien, who still looks fantastic for his age and has finally produced a performance to match the unnerving sliminess of Riff-Raff in Pierre Le Pieu, the sinister local lord with his black heart set upon owning Danielle. His performance may be pure King Rat but it's all the more glorious for it.

Yet it's not only the family Cinders that gets a make-over: while many critics over the years have attacked the story for depicting a dopey girl assuming trophy-bride status for a 2D prince, that's not the prince's fault. Firstly, he's fictional. Secondly, he's rarely, if ever, given a personality. Here Dougray Scott is actually given a part, not a collection of lines. He's not just a crown this time, but a rebellious young prince caught in the midst of politicking. Yes, politics. After all, the film has gone to all the trouble of setting itself in a definite era: why not use the history and the society that is available? Prince Henry is therefore being faced with an arranged marriage to a Spanish princess, while the court is abuzz with rumor and gossip about the possible existence of a woman that has stolen his heart. For fans of French period drama such as La Reine Margot and Ridicule, there are moments of aristocratic intrigue that will give them great pleasure, while historians will gain wry smiles from comments about divorces being an English habit and other such perfectly timed tidbits. There's even a gloriously self-deprecating appearance by Patrick Godfrey as Leonardo Da Vinci, a pleasant old cuss that's seen enough of life to tell the prince when he's being a doofus about romance. Actually, the moment when one of the more widely known influences upon Western cultural life says "horseshit" is pretty much worth the price of admission by itself.

But then there's Drew Barrymore. Let's cut the chase. Without a believable Cinderella, any Cinderella story is just an excuse for pantomime damery and groundling comedy. Much as I love the Disney animated take on the story, even I admit that it could be re- titled Sewing Mice And Some Fat Old Ladies With Wings. If Cinderella isn't about Cinderella, why bother?

That's why Drew Barrymore is absolutely perfect for the part. To put it simply, you can't help loving her and that's the first part of the battle won. A fairytale princess has to win the unconditional adoration of the audience, otherwise they might start rooting for the wrong people and life will have gone horribly Roald Dahl: but Drew combines a grace and luminescence that makes her a natural princess, whilst also maintaining a rugged and cheerful nature that makes you believe that she could run a farm single-handed and still have the energy to live a totally moral, no corners-cut life that will make as many good people as possible happy. In a decade when whining yuppy whores like Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal have dominated role-model fiction, Danielle is a breath of fresh air. It's no surprise that in her three most recent movies (this, Best Men and The Wedding Singer) she's played an bride-to-be: only the clinically insane amongst men could hold out against a woman that may not be conventionally beautiful but has perfected a heart-stealing cinematic presence. It's all the more astonishing if one remembers her return to cinema in the early nineties, when she became the queen of Lolita sex thrillers.

She and the Prince are already in love by the time that the inevitable masked ball arrives because of the great moral of the story: that it's what's inside, not outside that matters. Danielle may well be dirt-smudged most of her life but she has the spirit to argue for the freedom of the oppressed with the son of their oppressor. She gets to the ball because she wants to be there. There's no pumpkins, no fairy godmothers, no mice, no lizards, none of that nonsense. But there is love and that's always been magical enough for this reviewer. It may be that this is a movie where Cinderella rescues the prince but it's the willingness, not the action, that both show and that's why this is such a beautiful, charming and wonderful movie.

Ultimately, my feelings about this movie are very simple: if you're in a relationship, take the object of your affections with you to the cinema. If you can watch this film and not come out holding hands a little tighter than when you went in, give it up, because you and them is going nowhere.

RMW