For years, Hollywood has paid lip service to the idea of a strong female character. Yet from Disney’s cartoons to The Saint to Kiss the Girls, these “strong” women have needed a man to save them in the end.
Drew Barrymore plays Cinderella, who, without giving up her femininity, is a genuinely strong character. It is the most refreshing turn of the summer.
In this retelling of the fairy tale, the magic and mysticism have been stripped away, leaving human nature to drive the story. It makes for a much more interesting movie.
Danielle has been raised by her father Auguste (Jeroen Krabbe), her mother having died in childbirth. Dad marries Rodmilla (Anjelica Huston), when Danielle is about 9. Danielle immediately loves Rodmilla and her two daughters, though the opposite isn’t necessarily true.
Soon after the wedding, Auguste leaves on business. Everyone is tense because they sense that without him, their family will fall apart. They understand that he is the buffer and the glue that allows them all to coexist peacefully. Before he can make it to the front gate, he falls off his horse and dies, his last words professing his love, not for his wife, but for his daughter. This gives Danielle hope throughout her life, but it makes her stepmother even more jealous and cruel.
Danielle, nicknamed Cinderella because she likes to read on the hearth, grows up less a daughter and more a servant to her step-family. Nevertheless, she is happy, enjoying life more than her bitter mother and sister Marguerite. (Her other sister Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey) is not so bad.)
One day a hooded figure on a stolen horse nearly tramples Danielle. She pelts him with apples and demands the return of the horse, until she sees that he is the prince. She makes her obeisance and allows him to ride on. He pays her for her silence in this embarrassing matter.
Danielle knows exactly what to do with the money. A hired hand has been sold into slavery, parting him from his wife. She heads to town to buy him back, disguised as nobility. There she meets the prince again and, when drawn into conversation, scolds him for his elitist point of view toward slavery.
The prince is taken by this challenging young woman, who is more than just a pretty face, who can argue politics and morality with him as an intellectual equal. Like in the fairy tale, the prince is smitten, but he doesn’t know his love’s identity. He must learn who she is and where she lives before his father the king forces him to marry another.
Even though the story is melodramatic, there are no two-dimensional characters. That’s not to say they aren’t exaggerated, but they have their own motives and thoughts; they are not merely acting on behalf of the plot. For example, Rodmilla is, on the whole, cruel and jealous. But the movie took the time to show us why, and it even permitted her a scene of kindness. She and Danielle are alone together, the stepdaughter braiding the stepmother’s hair. The camera captures them, locked in each other’s gaze as they talk about love. For a brief, fleeting moment, the two connect as mother and daughter, before Rodmilla puts her hard exterior back on. (This scene also demonstrates the capability of both Barrymore and Huston as actors).
Another example is that Prince Henry falls in love with Danielle, not merely because the plot demands it, but because she offers him something the other courtiers do not. At first she is challenging and elusive. Later, she proves to be an intelligent, clever, capable partner. They meet again several times, each time discussing important and substantive issues. Their love springs from their friendship and mutual respect, not the other way around.
Along with the depth of the characters, the caliber of the dialogue makes screenwriters Susannah Grant, Tenant, and Rick Parks a trio to watch. As mentioned before, the arguments between characters are substantive and insightful. When Danielle is at the table with her step-family the insults are incisive and on-target. When she argues with the prince, the two bait each other with rhetorical traps. Everyone in the movie is a notch smarter than in your average film.
The movie turns corny near the end, and a wrinkle in the plot contrives to lengthen the film by about ten minutes, but on the whole, there is nothing wrong with the film.
It is incredibly refreshing to see a movie with a genuinely strong female character. It is equally refreshing to see a love story that has time to develop. Ever After gives me hope that Hollywood is capable of producing high-quality entertainment that doesn’t treat its audience like idiots. This is a movie not to be missed.