I have to admit, I was really surprised how long in took before someone guessed right that I would talk about this adaptation this week, since it is one of those movies nobody seems to be able to dislike. And of the American takes, I think this is the one which does it the best (Sorry, Disney).
There are certain trends in telling a Cinderella story. Originally, the idea was to keep it as close to the fairy tale as possible, with some adjustments to the narrative to make it more cinematic. Over time the concept of telling the story in modern times became more and more popular. After all, the basic plot is so simple, you can easily put it in any context and it would still be recognizable. Sometimes it is even created by accident. Supposedly Pretty Woman was originally meant to be a drama about prostitution and it somehow ended up being a modern fairy tale. Another trend are the spoofs and deconstructions which automatically come with any popular idea. But in recent years, most adaptations seem to aim for a “it is still supposed to be a fairy tale but has to be kind of modern, too” tone. One of the first movies which went this route was Ever After (1998).
Ever After accomplishes this special tone by using a narrative trick. It claims that the fairy tale is actually based on a true story but then tells it through a narrator. This way, the movie can add a lot of historical references, most notably throwing Leonardo da Vinci into the mix, fulfilling the role of the fairy godmother. This allows the audience to at least entertain the notion that the fairy tale is based on historical events, but whenever something feels too modern or too easy, well, it is a narration, and stories simplify by retelling them. Not that there is anything simple about this movie. It puts a lot of effort into flashing out all the characters.
I especially like the way the stepmothers and the stepsisters are portrayed. While the Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent is a repulsive person, there are a number of very settle scenes which explain her character and her actions towards Danielle. The hatred she feels for her is ignited by the knowledge that her husbands last thoughts were reserved for Danielle and not for her. But the actual source goes back even further. In short, Rodmilla herself was abused by her mother, who believed that beauty was the only way for a woman to success. In turn, Rodmilla is abusive too – too all of her children.
In a way, she does the biggest damage to Marguerite, because she continues the circle of abuse by installing questionable values into her. Her other daughter, Jacqueline, is in a way the lucky one, since the combination of neglect and the occasional put down for not being as beautiful as her sister allows her to eventually turn away from the influence of her mother. But Danielle is naturally the one who bears the brunt of Rodmilla’s deliberately abusive behaviour.
It is easy to understand why Danielle sticks around despite being treated like a servant – well, other than her kind of accepting that she is nothing more than that which, I admit, I don’t quite get. Granted, I am not exactly an expert in how the estate of the realm actually worked exactly in everyday life, but I was taught that the system was quite rigid. Meaning that even a poor noble would still be a noble. Danielle also has some sort of dowry, so she isn’t exactly a servant. What she isn’t for sure is a serf, but I guess it is kind of believable that the rich and powerful would get away with treating her like one.
But I digress. Danielle’s motivations are very relatable. She feels attached to her home, but above all to the people who are living there – again, I am kind of unclear if they are serfs or not. That Rodmilla is able to sell one of them suggest yes, but that they get some sort of salary suggest no. This is actually the biggest weakness of the movie, the rules aren’t particularly well defined, I never quite know if Rodmilla actually acts within the law or not. In any case, though, Danielle above all wants to stay with and protect the other servants of the estate.
Not only is her motivation clearly defined, Danielle is ticking all the boxes you need for a well-rounded character. She has a vast set of hobbies and interests, a defined political opinion and even though she is kind of a tomboy, she also appreciates poise and elegance. Even though this is a romantic movie, it actually takes a little bit time until the romance comes into play. Initially Danielle just want to rescue another servant, which is the only reason why she talks with Prince Henry is all. She has no interest in him as either prince or person, because she (rightly) feels that he is arrogant. Henry in the other hand is the typical prince who doesn’t want an arranged marriage, but the movie also spends a lot of time addressing the obligations he should respect and fulfil as a prince.
Once Henry shows himself open-minded enough to actually listen what Danielle has to say, the dynamic between those two shifts. Once she develops an interest in him, her new desire is that he will one day accept her true self, but she also doesn’t trust him enough to actual reveal the truth to him. It is sometimes a little bit odd to see Leonardo da Vinci act as the highest authority on romantic love, but what is said about the nature of romance and relationship is pretty much spot on.
What is a little bit unusual about Danielle compared to other adaptation is that her relationships don’t stop with her family, the prince and whoever or whatever is the stand-in for the fairy godmother. She also has a best friend in Gustave, some kind of replacement family in the other servants who treat her half like a daughter and half like their leader, has to fight of the advances of a really creepy suitor and even manages to impress the leader of a group of vigilantes with her bravery in a set-up which is taken straight from another German saga about how the woman of a besieged town once rescued their husbands.
Danielle is also a very outspoken character, though she usually has a good sense for when it is better to circumvent her stepmother and other antagonists. Seeing her deal with various difficult situation is what the majority of the movie is about. This is yet another adaptation in which the importance of the ball is greatly reduced. Instead most of the time is spend on the events leading up to the ball, and the fall-out of it. This allows Danielle to experience her own sets of adventures, showing of how opinionated and brave she is when she deals with those who want her harm. Even though she is very insecure about her status, she manages to bluff her way out of a difficult situation more than once. Her experiences allow her to develop into the woman, who is able to leave the abuse she endured behind her, and walk towards a new life.
Quote: “I would rather die a thousand deaths than see my mother’s dress on that spoiled, selfish cow!”
Ever After is often hailed as one, if not the best Cinderella adaptations out there. I am inclined to agree that while it is not my favourite one, it ranges very high on the list. I am very aware that most of my picks for this December aren’t particularly accessible for my English-speaking readers, which is quite of a shame, since they miss out on some very great movies. But if you love the Cinderella story, there is no excuse to skip this one. Great actors, screenplay, costumes, sets, it is as close to perfect as a movie can get.
Well, so much about my top picks. Next week I will cover very briefly a couple of the more remarkable adaptation. Last chance to make suggestions. Until then, I hope you all have a Merry Christmas together with people you love. After all, there is no bigger blessing on earth.