WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: The Brothers Grimm have their version of the Cinderella tale put straight by someone who should know, a supposed descendant of the girl herself. They find out that not only did Ella really live, but that her tale is even more magical than their imagination allowed for, the servant girl overcoming impossible barriers to be with her charming prince.
What words come into your head when you hear the name Cinderella? No doubt ‘pumpkin’, ‘mice’ and ‘fairy godmother’ will be among the first in the queue, so it would seem unwise to attempt a version of the story that does away with all three, let alone one which makes the ugly sisters quite attractive and reduces the candidates for the glass slipper down to a field of one. Nonetheless, this is exactly what Andy Tennant’s live-action film does, with results quite different to cartoon or pantomime versions of the tale.
Beginning with the Grimm Brothers being treated to their own ‘Once upon a time’ moment, Ever After takes us back to 16th Century France, where eight-year old Danielle de Barbarac loves playing with her friend Gustave, but loves her father Auguste (Jeroen Krabbe) even more, especially when he brings back books for her to read from his travels. From one trip he also brings back a new wife, haughty Baroness Anjelica Huston and her two daughters, Marguerite and Jacqueline; but their domestic bliss is short-lived, as Auguste dies soon afterwards.
Fast forward ten years and Danielle (Drew Barrymore) is no more than a servant to her step-relatives, and while Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey) is somewhat sympathetic to her plight, being rather put-upon herself, Marguerite (Megan Dodds) has grown up to be at least as arch and disdainful as her mother, who thinks nothing of selling off servants to service her debts.
Meanwhile, Henry (Dougray Scott), heir to the throne of France, has his own issues, and his attempts to escape from the strictures of his parents (played by Timothy West and Judy Parfitt) lead him into several meetings with Danielle, firstly when she lobs an apple at his head as he ‘borrows’ a horse; secondly, when she dresses as a courtier to secure the release of faithful servant Maurice.
Intrigued by the feisty nature of ‘Comtesse Nicole d’Encree’ (Danielle’s mother’s name, to which she has added the title), Henry sets off to woo her, hoping to name her as his bride at a ball set up in the honour of visiting painter/all-round genius Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey), and thereby escape an arranged marriage. Nobody seems to know who the comtesse is, but with the Baroness pushing Marguerite’s charms at every opportunity, more than one person would like to find out. The Baroness does find out, and locks Danielle away – but with friends like Gustave and da Vinci, who needs a fairy godmother? Actually, Danielle might, to convince Henry that posing as a courtier was not a deliberate deceit.
Ditching the wand-waving magic in favour of muddy medieval farming is a risk, and the makers of Ever After present a world where colour is limited to the rich. What they also do, however, is add a load of colour to the story’s personnel, lifting them from being stock pantomimic figures and letting them breathe as individuals; and a lot of credit is due to the cast for the fact that they (mostly) inhabit their roles without resorting to winking thigh-slapping.
To be honest, I wasn’t enamoured of the child Danielle, but Barrymore is both sympathetic and affecting in the role, notwithstanding the fact that she over-emphasises each and every syllable in an attempt to sound English (on a side note, why – if the action takes place in France – do all the servants have rustic English accents?). The chemistry she shares with her colleagues, whether it be undertaking a battle of wits with Scott (also very good), verbally sparring with Huston, or physically sparring with Dodds, is excellent and keeps up our interest. This is just as well, since the pace is gentle at best and some swashbuckling scenes feel cobbled together purely to inject some action into the film.
In fact, apart from Henry and Danielle, much of the film is hit and miss, so whilst the use of da Vinci as the genial, godmother-replacing genius more or less works, the too-hissable and brief-to-the-point-of-redundant appearance of Richard O’Brien as the nasty alternative to the Prince doesn’t, especially as Danielle is more than capable of rescuing herself. Melanie Lynskey’s performance as the ungainly Jacqueline is a definite hit, however, a small role where she is perfectly charming and gently sarcastic (a world away from her debut in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures), and it’s pleasing that she gets her own love interest.
There are plenty of niggling faults to be found in Ever After, and the fact that it’s not a fairytale possibly stops me from overlooking them (one last example: the script deviates uncertainly between classic fairytale language and modernisms such as ‘Have you lost your marbles?’ and ‘Four-minute egg’). That said, the film is handsomely shot in a number of picturesque French chateaux, and the story actually loses nothing by stripping out the fantastical elements. In fact, it retains an enormous amount of charm; and with strong performances by those famous Hollywood names, Barrymore and Huston, Ever After is – happily – a much better film than the sum of its parts.