SPOILERS AHEAD! – Don’t read this review if you haven’t seen the film yet.
My daughter, at her nearly 4 years of age, will happily watch anything involving princes, princesses and adventure. I’m a hopeless romantic and a lover of fairytales, in both their soppy, reworked modern versions, and their much more cruel, child-unfriendly original versions. So you can see why Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998; D: Andy Tennant) would be a favourite in our house.
That being said, not all fairytale adaptations bring a smile to my face as readily as Ever After: A Cinderella Story does. For me, the magic already begins at the very start of the movie, when that grande dame of cinema, Jeanne Moreau in the role of the great-great-great-granddaughter of Danielle de Barbarac (Drew Barrymore), invites the brothers Grimm to her chateau to set them straight on the events that have since become the fairytale of “the little cinder-girl”. When she presents the writers with the actual glass slipper that is such an essential element of the story, the scene is quite masterfully set for the telling that follows.
The fairytale itself begins with young Cinderella, or Danielle de Barbarac (Anna Maguire), in happier days. Danielle is a bit of a wild child and spends most of her time playing with her friend Gustave (Ricki Cuttell). Her father, Auguste (Jeroen Krabbé), is a merchant who clearly adores his only child. Rather progressively, he has taught her to read and instilled in her a love of the written word. When Auguste returns home from one of his journeys, he brings with him a new wife, Rodmilla de Ghent (Anjelica Huston) and her two daughters Marguerite and Jacqueline. It is clear from Rodmilla’s look of contempt at the sight of tomboy Danielle, that there is trouble ahead.
And so there is: a few short weeks later Auguste dies of a heart attack, leaving his new wife in charge of the children, a household and staff. Fast forward ten years, and there is the Cinderella we know from the stories. Danielle effectively runs the entire household, doing the chores with the rest of the staff, while Rodmilla allows herself to be waited on hand and foot. She treats her stepdaughter shabbily, but treats her own daughter Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey) only marginally less badly. It is only Marguerite (Megan Dodds) who is being groomed for life at court. Rodmilla shows admirable optimism in her efforts to push her into the arms of the Crown Prince of France, never mind his engagement to a Spanish princess (Virginia García): “Nothing is final until you are dead and even then I’m sure God negotiates”.
Meanwhile, Prince Henry (Dougray Scott) is proving to be a problem for the King and Queen of France (Timothy West and Judy Parfitt). He is not interested in marrying anyone, nor does he want to succeed his father, and he has apparently made a habit of escaping the palace to evade his duties.
During one of these escapes Henry runs into Danielle. In her efforts to prevent him from stealing a horse she pelts him with apples until she realizes she’s been bombarding the future King of France with fruit. She – or perhaps just the apple hitting him on the forehead – makes an impression on him. Immediately after, Henry meets Leonardo DaVinci (Patrick Godfrey), who has been invited to the Royal Court of France to be honored for his work as an artist. (“Michaelangelo is trapped under a roof in Rome. I am merely second choice.”)
Upon Henry’s return to the palace, the exasperated King sets him an ultimatum: find another woman to marry, but do so before the ball honoring Signore DaVinci; if not the ball will also mark the announcement of Henry’s engagement to the Spanish princess.
It is not long before Henry and Danielle meet again, this time at court where Danielle appears disguised as a noblewoman. Henry has no idea this is the servant he met earlier, but is visibly intrigued by her passionately quoting Thomas More at him and he wants to learn more.
Rumours of Henry’s affections for a mysterious stranger abound, and Rodmilla eventually puts two and two together. On the day before the ball, she misinforms the Queen of France that Danielle is engaged to be married and then proceeds to lock Danielle in the cellar to ensure she does not attend the ball. Henry learns of Danielle’s “engagement” from his mother, resigns himself to marrying the Spanish princess and tells his father to announce the match at the ball.
Leonardo DaVinci finds out about Danielle’s plight from Gustave (Lee Ingleby) and, assuming the role of fairy godmother, he is instrumental in getting Danielle to the ball after all by freeing her from the cellar.
Danielle arrives at the ball just in time to prevent the wedding announcement, but her happy ending is sabotaged by her stepmother who exposes her as a servant rather than a noblewoman. Henry, suddenly seeing that his love interest is in fact the same girl who knocked him off a stolen horse, does not respond well to the revelation and dismisses Danielle. She runs off, losing one of her glass slippers in the process. Leonardo DaVinci, arriving moments after this drama and expecting to see the couple happily united is instead confronted with a sulking, stubborn Henry, whom he quickly puts in his place.
Following the drama at the ball, Rodmilla sees an opportunity for Marguerite’s promotion to princess. Not wanting to take any chances that the prince might change his mind about Danielle, she sells her into servitude to Pierre LePieu (Richard O’ Brien), a despicable, lecherous cockroach of a man only slightly more odious than his surname suggests. As it turns out, Rodmilla’s fears are well founded, because Henry takes DaVinci’s advice to heart, releases the Spanish princess from her promise to marry him and shortly afterwards comes looking for Danielle. When he finds out what has happened, he devises a plan to make Rodmilla and Marguerite pay. Jacqueline, who has by now realized that her mother really only cares about elevating herself and Marguerite to royalty, feels sorry for Danielle and gladly helps him put his plan into action. Henry then goes off to rescue Danielle. He arrives too late for that, however: Danielle has already rescued herself. And the rest as they say, is history.
But that’s not quite where the fairytale ends. Rodmilla and Marguerite still need to get what they deserve. In a delicious scene, made perfect by Anjelica Huston in top form, the King and Queen declare that the schemers should be shipped off to the Americas “unless, by some miracle, someone here will speak for you”. Rodmilla backs away through the hall, looking around her hopefully and finally offering a pretty creative explanation for why no-one speaks up on her behalf: “There seem to be quite a few people out of town!”
After the fairytale ends, we return to the chateau for the final scene to hear the grand dame impress upon the brothers Grimm the importance of realizing that Cinderella and her prince actually lived.
“Ever After” brings an original flavor of to the tale of Cinderella, doing away with magic and instead replacing it with the genius of Leonardo DaVinci and the timid yet brave enthusiasm of Danielle’s childhood friend Gustave. Gustave’s part may be small, but it is important.
Tennant has taken care to sketch his characters well. Rather than just positioning Rodmilla as a cruel, spiteful woman, the movie grants some insights into the motivations of this wicked stepmother. She is born of noble blood, not used to getting her hands dirty, and she has married a man she hardly knows and has come with him to live in his home with his daughter from a previous marriage. She has barely had two weeks to settle into her new life as a merchant’s wife when he suffers a heart attack and dies, saying his last words of love not to her but to his daughter. And so she is left alone in unfamiliar territory, and while she may not have loved her husband she was perhaps hoping for affection to develop between them, because she resents Danielle for having been the most important part of his life. Later in the movie this sentiment of affection and loss is revisited during a conversation Rodmilla has with Danielle: she is almost tender with her stepdaughter, but then as the resentment takes over again, she buries that inclination and reverts to the subtle putdowns she reserves especially for Danielle. All in all, everything she does can be construed as an investment in a secure future. And, it must be said, Rodmilla gets the best lines – Anjelica Huston delivers them beautifully; she is pitch-perfect in her role as the scheming, reaching stepmother.
Prince Henry is mostly put upon. He wrestles with the obligations that every crown prince has and struggles to find himself. Dougray Scott plays the role with complexity and a great deal of charm. Henry could easily be mistaken for a spoilt brat, but the sincerity that Dougray Scott infuses into the character prevents that from happening. Rather, as the story unfolds, you find yourself carried along by Henry’s discovery that life can consist of more than just one’s responsibilities.
Drew Barrymore is charming and sincere as Danielle. She never quite masters the English accent, which is occasionally annoying, but not so as to take away from the enjoyment of the film.
But it’s the supporting roles that really add the great touches to this movie. Patrick Godfrey’s Leonardo DaVinci is simply delightful: intelligent, wise, warm, sincere, kind and honest. Timothy West and Judy Parfitt are wonderful as the King and Queen at the end of their rope (at one point, the King says accusingly to the Queen: “He’s your son!”). Virginia García does a great comical turn as the Spanish princess crying hysterically at her own wedding, and Richard O’Brien’s LePieu is downright evil – much more so than Rodmilla, in fact.
Setting the mood throughout the film is the sweet, romantic soundtrack by George Fenton. The evocative main theme provides a lovely backdrop to the events as they unfold.
Ever After: A Cinderella Story may not be the best movie I’ve ever seen, but it is one of the most enjoyable fairytale adaptations I’ve seen. This movie is worth your time.