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Review: Cinderella is a fairytale come true for our Ken Branagh

Kenneth Branagh is no longer just the go-to guy for big-screen Shakespearean adaptations. In recent years, the Belfast-born actor, writer and director has proved a versatile - if not to say wildly eclectic - filmmaker. From Mozart's The Magic Flute to Marvel's Thor, Branagh's latter-day helming gigs have left fans never quite knowing what he will deliver next.

Still, the 54-year-old's involvement in Disney's live-action retelling of Cinderella may come as a bit of a surprise even by Branagh's standards. Happily, it proves to have been an inspired appointment by the 'House of Mouse'.

Under Branagh's assured direction, Disney's latest effort hits all the right notes. There's the danger with a classic yarn such as Cinderella that audiences will be too familiar with the outcome to respond.

But Branagh and writer Chris Weitz inject freshness, from the arrival of the title character's stepsisters - here, ugly on the inside, rather than physically so - to the trying-on of the glass slipper.

The film's other masterstroke is to treat the source material - lest we forget, an ancient European folk tale that has been adapted by many different cultures and its 'persecuted heroine' tropes studied by literary scholars for centuries - with respect. It hasn't been dumbed down for modern audiences, nor has it been presented ironically, aside from one or two lines of dialogue that pander to the patois of today's youth.

Being a Branagh-directed Disney blockbuster, heavyweight thespians (Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgard) vie for screentime with computer-generated animals, but the juxtaposition works marvellously.

Branagh's sweeping camerawork is pitched midway between grand and epic - dramatic enough to be a feast for film fans' eyes, yet never getting too tricksy for what is essentially a kids' flick. Patrick Doyle's score matches the visuals with its lush strings and majestic horns, and the boldly coloured cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is inspired.

But of course, any production of Cinderella will ultimately stand or fall on the central performance, and Downton Abbey's Lily James steps up to the plate. The English actress is beautiful, warm and relatable - all the things a good 'Cinders' should be. James also fares well alongside her veteran female co-stars. Cate Blanchett, top-billed as the 'wicked stepmother' Lady Tremaine, is a scenery-chewing delight, her lip-smacking turn outdone only by Helena Bonham Carter, channelling the best of her Tim Burton work into a tottering, swivel-eyed Fairy Godmother. That James not just holds her own against these two giants, but remains the star of the show, is testament to the 25-year-old's burgeoning talent.

The male members of the cast are less impactful, though Richard Madden's Prince Charming is the right combination of hunky, hirsute and faintly gormless. As for Branagh, where he goes next is anyone's guess, but, on current form whatever project the maestro sets his sights on, he shall go to the ball.

Four stars

Belfast Telegraph