by Emily Lehman
I watched the new Cinderella movie tentatively, waiting for vulgar humor, a sudden flamboyant display of CGI, or a swipe at traditional gender roles. Accustomed to the endless litany of remakes, sequels, and parodies, I expected that this movie would attempt to wink knowingly at the audience in one way or another, and waited for the jarring, if expected, blow. To my surprise, it never came: Cinderella addressed the jaded adult’s skepticism through simple, unapologetic beauty, not seeking to set itself apart and thereby making itself like nothing I had seen before.
We all know the story. Cinderella, the wicked stepmother, the odious stepsisters, even the helpful little mice are as familiar to us as our worn copies of Goodnight Moon and ragged teddy bears. And, refraining from such exciting innovations as a prince fan club (Ella Enchanted), crazy puppet-like monsters (Mirror Mirror), a talking snowman (Frozen), or at least one catchy musical number (all of the above), Cinderella differs from its fairy-tale-adaptation predecessors by being—simple. It’s just the story that we heard when we were children.
Or is it? From the moment the movie begins, with an enthralling soundtrack, rich set, and lush costumes, we are drawn into Cinderella’s perfect world. The account of her childhood would be saccharine if it weren’t so golden, to borrow the narrator’s description. She is a beautiful child, stunningly so, unfairly so. Her family’s farm is both castle-like and endearing. The natural world surrounds little Cinderella with perfect beauty–for under ten minutes. Because just after Cinderella’s mother is singing her little girl to sleep, “Lavender’s blue, dilly, dilly, lavender’s green . . .” suddenly she is dying and telling a weeping golden-haired little girl to “have courage, and be kind.”
Stop right there. Perhaps we could seize upon this moment for sarcasm, irony, cynicism. Have courage and be kind? Isn’t that—clichéd—somewhere? Isn’t that something we’ve all heard before? Perhaps not. But even if it is, nonetheless it defends itself through itself: it’s nothing more than simple advice from a simple movie, one that will show us that having courage and being kind is not sweet, easy and painless all the time.
And from that moment on, following again almost word for word the story we heard when we were children but didn’t fully understand, the plot takes a dizzying drop into darkness. The stepmother appears, beautiful enough for us to understand why Cinderella’s broken father has fallen for her. And there are the stepsisters, already worn-out and repulsive to us from their constant reappearance in the story’s tellings and retellings.
Just before the new wife arrives on the scene, Cinderella’s father, with a desperate, hunted look, breaks the news to his daughter—“Yes. Happiness. Do you think I may be allowed one last chance, even though I thought such things were done with for good?” Ella assents, but her father is not to have the happiness he longed for; out he goes on his doomed journey, she asking for the first branch that brushes his shoulder on his journey. The branch returns, but he does not, and for the first time we realize that this isn’t really a children’s movie and Ella is not, because of her goodness, immune to agony—slowly she crumples against the door, silently, at the destruction of her world.
The story goes on, always familiar. But this Ella is not the fairy-tale heroine we’re accustomed to; or, if she is, she has features that we never discerned in childhood before we knew pain. She is beautiful, but sleeping in the ashes and putting her hair up in a nasty rag makes her less beautiful. She is not immune to suffering and degradation. As she descends into the position of a slave, we see her intensely aware of the pain her stepfamily inflicts; once, she meets her stepmother’s eyes, obviously in revolt at the thought of tying her shoe, and then masters herself for self-abasement one more time. Our jaded eyes are beginning to see what real virtue looks like: not the absence of pain at doing what is difficult, but the courage and kindness to do it anyway. Cinderella doesn’t do good because it’s so natural to her that it’s always easy and pleasant; she does it because it’s good. Again, the story proves that it can grow with us into adulthood.
It’s when Cinderella can’t go to the ball that she has a crisis of faith, the one that we could sympathize with as children since it most resembles a temper tantrum. (Perhaps we haven’t outgrown those now, though.) “I said I’d have courage, but I don’t. Not anymore. I don’t believe anymore.” Finally we see this paragon hit rock bottom. It looks like the moment of triumph for the adult cynic–or is it the moment of defeat? Cinderella proves that she’s only human, after all, not the perfect princess we always dreamed of. The cynic laughs into his sleeve, but he might also sigh. Another dream has disintegrated. She has maintained herself till now in an almost superhuman character of courage and kindness; suddenly she finds that she is nothing, has nothing, and cannot go on.
Then grace appears, in the guise of one of the strangest tree-camouflaged old ladies known to cinematic history. A poor old woman asks for her help. The Cinderella that we thought just despaired remembers her kindness one more time, and everything changes. This time we’re not just seeing her superhuman virtue, though—this time she is carried by grace, and so, just like the rest of the movie, the story rings true; at a certain point the merely human cannot go on.
Everything is transformed; the prince whose only claim to our approbation (which is more than enough) seems to be Cinderella’s regard appears and sweeps her off her feet. Midnight. A lost slipper. Cinderella’s in love, and we see it in her movements, in the way she sways back and forth at her chores, in her smile and disregard for her stepfamily.
But it’s not over yet. Cutting a long story that we all know short, Cinderella is locked in the closet when her last possibility of being saved approaches. “Did you steal it?” Cinderella’s stepmother asks about the glass slipper.
No. It was given to me.
Given to you?
Given to me.
Nothing is ever given. For everything we must pay and pay.
That’s not true. Kindness is free. Love is free.
Love is not free.
And so we see how Cinderella’s encounter with grace has enabled her to see something that the stepmother cannot: gratuity, needlessness, the unbought beauty of good things.
But even locked in her attic that encounter is something she doesn’t forget: alone, probably forever, knowing everything is lost to her again, she sings the old song that her mother sang at her cradle. And it is Cinderella’s very abandonment that leads to the climactic moment of grace—her singing is heard, and she is found.
When Cinderella is in glory, found by the prince, her sisters ask her forgiveness. She ignores them. We think she might have fallen into a bit of good healthy vindictiveness, something that even our shattered cynicism is happy to cling to. Cinderella and the prince are about to leave, and the beautiful stepmother appears, silent, on the stairs. Then Cinderella says it, the words we expect but hardly want to hear—“I forgive you.” And the stepmother slowly crumples on the stairs like her stepdaughter in her grief, destroyed, perhaps redeemed.
That’s just the story of Cinderella. It’s about grace and the power of beauty and simple virtues. It’s about a heroine who seems too good to be true. But somehow the movie isn’t just for children. It draws that story we used to think we knew so well up into something that encompasses the pain and destruction and what-sometimes-looks-like-meaninglessness of our adult existence. We’re given something, something we didn’t earn. Maybe it’s hope. Maybe it’s dying words: “Have courage, and be kind.”
Emily Lehman is a junior studying English.