Every once in a while, a movie surprises me. Such is the case with Andy Tennant's Ever After. Based on the lackluster previews, I was prepared for the worst, but, instead of getting a juvenile, pointless re-telling of the classic Cinderella fairy tale, I was confronted with a delightful re-interpretation. While I won't claim that Ever After is the best cinematic version of the fable, this is deft storytelling, and sure to be a hit with almost everyone who sees it (except, perhaps, unromantic cynics).
One of the most curious things about this movie is the PG-13 rating bestowed upon it by the MPAA. This is the third would-be family film in less than a month to carry that classification, and, while it is understandable in the case of the other two, Dr. Dolittle and Small Soldiers, I am at a loss to explain why Ever After was treated so harshly. Aside from a couple of mild swordfights, the evidence of a whipping (the actual event is not shown), and an inconsequential instance of profanity, there's nothing remotely objectionable about Ever After's content. Parents made wary by the PG-13 need not fret; this picture is entirely suitable for viewing by children of all ages.
Ever After's twist is that it's telling the real Cinderella story from which the Brothers Grimm fable was derived (the two famous fairy tale scribes make a brief appearance in a prologue that also features a cameo by the incomparable Jeanne Moreau). Consequently, there are no pumpkins, mice, magic spells, or fairy godmothers. The love story between a peasant girl and a prince is still at the core, although, in this case, Cinderella (whose name is Danielle), has the kind of progressive attitude that would be more at home in the 1990s than in the 1500s.
The broad strokes of the story are certainly familiar. After the tragic death of her father (Jeroen Krabbe), Danielle (played by Anna Maguire as a little girl, and Drew Barrymore thereafter) is consigned to a life of servitude for her cruel stepmother, Rodmilla (Anjelica Huston), and vain step-sister, Marguerite (Megan Dodds). Danielle has an ally in the household, her second step-sister, Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey, last seen opposite Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures), but she's too meek to stand up to her mother. While Rodmilla, Marguerite, and Jacqueline enjoy as much luxury as their farm house provides, Danielle (dubbed Cinderella by Marguerite for the cinders that always stain her clothing) is forced to scrub the floors, cook the meals, and feed the animals.
One day, when Danielle is picking apples, she spies a man stealing one of her step-mother's horses. It's actually Prince Henry (Dougray Scott), the heir to the throne of France, in the process of running away from his father because he is unwilling to be trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage. Mistaking Henry for a common thief, Danielle knocks him from the horse with a well-aimed apple. After she realizes who he is, she is apologetic, but the meeting leaves an impression on both of them. At the time of their next encounter, Danielle is posing as a countess in order to rescue a family retainer from debtors' prison. She engages the Prince in a spirited debate, and, although he thinks he recognizes her, he can't put a name to the face. Soon, he is scouring the countryside looking for her, and, although Danielle is attracted to him, she avoids contact, fearing that if he learns that she isn't a member of the nobility, he will shun her. Through all of this, there is a fairy godmother of sorts -- Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey), who uses science, not magic, to smooth the path of true love.
Movies like Ever After, if fashioned with little skill, become curiosities for pre-teen girls looking for a summer afternoon at the movies. However, Tennant takes this familiar material and crafts a charming, captivating motion picture. He gives the villains a few human qualities, but still manages to make them despicable enough that we feel justified in cheering when they receive their comeuppance. The all-important romance is nicely-developed. Danielle and Henry are clearly fated to be together, but they have to overcome a number of obstacles along the way, including her dishonesty, her step-family's duplicity, and his prejudice. Of course, everything turns out happily ever after (hence, the title), but, as in all romances, our enjoyment lies in observing the games played by the two smitten protagonists en route to that ending.
As good as the costumes and setting are, Tennant does not craft a flawless period piece. In fact, Ever After transpires in a pseudo-16th century that bears only a passing resemblance to the historical reality. Anachronisms abound, both in attitudes and in speech. The characters talk as if they are products of the 1900s, not the 1500s, using idioms that, at the time, were centuries away from making their way into the language. Tennant doesn't appear to be bothered by these inaccuracies, but those who are sticklers for period detail may be distracted by this sort of thing.
Drew Barrymore, continuing to rehabilitate her once-tarnished image, proves that her winning turn as a romantic lead in the otherwise-dreadful The Wedding Singer was no fluke. As Danielle, she radiates tremendous appeal. Like Prince Henry, we are immediately taken not only with Danielle's beauty (which shines through the dirt on her face) but with her spirit. Speaking of the Prince, Dougray Scott (who can also be seen in this summer's Deep Impact) manages the difficult feat of making Henry likable rather than bland (blandness is often the unfortunate fate of the male leads in movies like this). Anjelica Huston and Megan Dodds turn on the bitchiness as step-mom and step-sister, and veteran actors Timothy West and Judy Parfitt have comical turns as the King and Queen of France. Patrick Godfrey's wise-but-humorous da Vinci is a delight.
Tennant, who showed skill at the helm of a romance with his last film, Fools Rush In, has found the right tone for this effort. The love story is wrapped around interludes of comedy, adventure, and drama. It never seems to matter that we know the entire story from the beginning -- the characters, not the plot, capture our attention. One concern I have about this film is that, because it's not high-profile, it has the potential to become lost in the summer crush. Here's hoping that enough viewers discover Ever After to give it a happy ending at the box office. [Berardinelli's rating: *** out of 4]
Labels: comedy, drama, fantasy, romance
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