Tales of Yore is a series of articles about fairy tale adaptations. Adaptations can be direct or loose, and these reviews attempt to consider the films in the context of the stories upon which they are based.
This week, I am returning to my Tales of Yore series with a look at an even more modern fairy tale update, this time of “Cinderella.” I discussed the original story and Disney adaptation a few weeks ago, but this week’s movie is live action and plays with the original story in some very clever ways.
Ever After (1998)
Plot: Danielle (Drew Barrymore), a smart, exuberant young girl, lives with her widowed father, who encourages her budding intelligence and outspokeness. Unfortunately, her father remarries to a cruel woman, Rodmilla (Anjelica Huston). When her father dies, she is made a servant by her Rodmilla and stepsister Marguerite (Megan Dodds), only finding sympathy in her soft-spoken stepsister Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey). Danielle’s luck begins to change when she has several encounters with Prince Henry (Dougray Scott), who is impressed by her intelligence and outspokenness. Of course, many problems arise when the Prince must choose a wife before a ball held in honor of Leonardo da Vinci.
One of the most unique aspects of this adaptation of the famous Perrault story is that, instead of a fairy tale with magic and fairy godmothers, Ever After is a historical drama set in France during the Renaissance The entire story itself is told as a flashback, being narrated by an older Danielle to The Brothers Grimm, who collected the story in real life for their collection of fairy tales published in 1812. This look at the story in its historical context is used to comment on some of the original’s lurking aspects, but it also runs the risk of robbing the story of its magic and fun.
Luckily, the great pacing, energy, and camerawork in this movie squash those worries. The costumes and architecture seem real and are well-used. The characters have great dialogue and the action moves fast, both for audiences unfamiliar with “Cinderella” (which I can’t imagine is a huge demographic) and those that know the story. The ideas of the original tale are constantly played with, such as the fairy godmother being replaced with Leonardo da Vinci, who is sympathetic toward Danielle and decides to create her clearly fairy-inspired dress.
I can’t even count how many of the original aspects of the story, or of fairy tales in general, are altered. I talked briefly about how Cinderella, at least in the Disney version, is silenced in her own story. She doesn’t get to speak much, and appeals to the Prince largely because she is beautiful. Barrymore is also certainly attractive, but not the tall, incredibly thin blonde that Disney seemed to favor. Prince Henry is attracted to her intelligence, compassion, and vivacity, which is very refreshing. Danielle is likewise attracted to his surprisingly kind demeanor and extreme lack of royal snobbishness. Also, he’s not too shabby looking himself.
One particularly clever subversion is when Danielle is sold off to a huge creep, who makes awkward sexual advances that get increasingly aggressive. This is about the time that Prince Henry is coming to apologize for a mistake he made (which, in true romcom fashion, is all due to a misunderstanding). Typically, we would expect for Henry to come rescue Danielle from the antagonist-of-the-moment, but instead he arrives to Danielle walking out of the castle, having handled the problem entirely on her own. It’s nice to see a fairy tale princess who can stand up for herself, and a Prince who doesn’t need to rescue her every time something happens.
My only complaint is that, much like the old fairy tales tend to have flat characters that are all good or all bad, Ever After similarly lacks complexity. Gender roles are entirely flipped on their head, which makes the characters more interesting and certainly more modern. Hell, this movie is practically a feminist theorist’s wet dream. But for all that subversion, the characters are still largely one way or the other. The stepmother and one of the stepsisters is evil, the creepy dude that Danielle is sold too is super rapey, and Danielle is the perfect human being who only is in conflict when society is treating her like crap. Danielle never seems to have any flaws, which makes her feel like an inversion on Cinderella–which is great for playing with gender–but this makes her flat, too. It would have been nice to have some more character nuance.
Still, this is a fairy tale movie that is already playing a lot with the source material and all the while trying to fit into the basic plot structure of a fun romantic comedy. That is a huge accomplishment, and even if the characters are too one-sided in terms of good and evil, they still have inner turmoil and great dialogue. Ever After is perfect for fans of fairy tales, romcoms, fun period pieces…