Post-feminist 'Cinderella' resourceful, resilient and romantic
Right away I want to make it clear that while I think Drew Barrymore is pretty cute, I'm not one of those guys whose tongue unravels like a cartoon wolf when I see her on screen.
I felt it necessary to state that, because otherwise you might dismiss what I say next:
"Ever After," in which Barrymore plays a petulant, post-feminist Cinderella in 16th Century France, is one of the best movies of 1998.
A brilliantly inventive updating of one of world's best-known fairy tale, this re-telling is resplendent with marvelous twists and ingenious alterations that bring the story in line with more modern thinking about sex roles while staying perfectly loyal to the spirit of the story.
Pulling from several version of the fable, writers Susannah Grant, Rick Parks and Andy Tennant -- who also directed -- give shallow characters depth and emotion (the stepmother has serious psychological reasons for being so wicked) and create new obstacles (the prince is betrothed to a Spanish princess), while Barrymore enlivens dewy heroine Danielle (Cinderella is just a nickname given by her nasty step sister) with smarts, independence and a charmingly pointed persona.
"Ever After" announces its intentions immediately with an introduction in which a 19th Century royal descendant of Danielle summons the Brothers Grimm after reading their "Cinderella" and proceeds to tell them where they got it wrong.
Her recollection is a cagey and lightly comedic, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern"-like story in which Cinderella -- pardon me, Danielle -- does not conform at all to fairy tale conventions.
Although she's still relegated to servant status after her father dies, Danielle stands up to her stepmother (Angelica Huston, who cannot help but be deliciously malevolent in the role). Although the plot still involves romance with a handsome prince (Dougray Scott), when they meet -- she is posing as a noblewoman for reasons too complicated to go into here -- she finds him arrogant and has the brassy audacity to smart off to him.
The prince is instantly smitten, but she doesn't fall in love until after several spirited meetings in which they enjoy lively, cavalier debates and discover a mutual interest in literature.
In one of the movie's best moments, she even comes swashbuckling to his rescue and carries him away when they are attacked by a band of gypsies while lost in a forest.
It is obvious director Andy Tennant was gleefully enthusiastic about this project. Splendidly reinterpreted and fantastically romantic, "Ever After" never takes a single misstep, short of a few cliched lines of dialogue and the odd fact that most everyone speaks with an English accent even though the story takes place in France.
The entire cast is delightful, especially Barrymore, who I would have never imagined as Cinderella but makes the part her own with the kind of sass that any prince looking for more than a trophy wife couldn't help but be drawn to.
The plot alterations include new takes on the step-sisters (one is beautiful, bitchy and has designs on the prince; the other is put-upon and a little plump), the masked ball (it's thrown in honor of the new court painter, Leonardo da Vinci) and the reason Cinderella/Danielle is locked up on the night of the party (she socks the wicked sister in the eye -- which raises cheers from the audience).
She still escapes to attend the ball, but it's Leonardo (Patrick Godfrey), whom she befriended while getting to know the prince, who springs her and helps her dress -- not some fairy godmother.
Even more fresh, tense and surprising twists are in store for the search- with- the- shoe scene and the rest of the last act, but I'm not going to spoil any more of it for you. (Although I will say to watch for Richard O'Brien of "Rocky Horror" fame as a joyfully despicable baron to whom Danielle's family is indebted.)
The best thing about this new Cinderella story is that Danielle is a girl you can respect, and that alone makes it the best version of this story that I've ever seen. It's also the most fun I've had at the movies all year.
If you're still dubious, let me say that I was too, mostly because the previews have been so pathetic. Someone idiot at 20th Century Fox had the poor judgment to think this movie would sell best as a techno music video, but that's not what the film is like at all.