New live-action Cinderella movie arrives with modern updates

Director Kenneth Branagh's retelling of the fairy tale includes making Cinderella meet her Prince Charming before the ball

The secret to dancing in glass slippers, says actress Lily James, is to not dance in glass slippers.

"I always feel I'm breaking everyone's heart when I tell them this," says the 25-year-old English actress given the title role in Disney's retelling of the fairy tale Cinderella.

The iconic princess-identifying shoes seen in close-ups are crystal from Swarovski. These are props, made for looks only, and cannot be walked in, much less danced in. They cannot even be worn.

"I always have to clarify - they cannot fit any foot and it's not that they cast the wrong person," says the actress with a laugh.

For the record, James, best known as Lady Rose MacClare in the period television series Downton Abbey, has average UK size 6 feet. "They're really frightening to hold," says James of the crystal slippers, not just because of how heavy and fragile they were, but because they cost £8,000 (S$16,720) each.

She was speaking to the press in Los Angeles last week.

The live-action Cinderella, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, is inspired by Disney's own 1950 animated classic, a movie remembered for the song Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo, a scatter-brained Fairy Godmother, Cinderella's blue ballgown and Gus Gus the portly mouse.

As with recent Disney works such as Maleficent (2014), the new film features socially conscious updates. The ugly stepsisters are now ugly on the inside. Cinderella does not yearn for Prince Charming because he is a prince, but because of his kindness and courage. He (Richard Madden) is smitten as much by her spirit as by her beauty.

An English actor of Nigerian descent, Nonso Anozie was cast by director Kenneth Branagh as the Captain of the guard and Asian extras can be spotted in crowd scenes.

Branagh's casting of Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall in the Marvel superhero movie Thor (2011) caused grumbling among fans of the comic books, who felt the director had trampled on the feelings of geeks for the sake of trendy multiracial casting.

The actor-director, who rose to fame with film adaptations of Shakespeare works (Henry V, 1989; and Othello, 1995), shrugs off possible complaints.

He embraced mixed-race casting a long time ago. Classic works are especially suited to reinterpretation through the use of non-white actors, he says.

"It's funny. The complaints happen with more high-profile projects. When we made Hamlet back in 1996, there was even more multiracial casting. But not enough people saw the movie to get upset about it," says the 54-year-old with a smile.

If there is one grouse he is happy not to deal with, it is that from fans of the classic who love the singing mice. "When people found out I was doing this project, they wanted to know if the mice were going to stay in the movie. I was pleased to tell them that Gus Gus survived the cut."

A more important update happens in the romance at the centre of the film. In the 1950 feature, Cinderella and the Prince first meet at the ball, where they fall in love.

"We wanted them to meet before the ball and for the prince to be much more fleshed-out so we can see why she might fall for him and he must earn and respect her love," says the director, who has also helmed spy thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), in which he had a role as baddie Viktor Cherevin.

He also played Sir Laurence Olivier in the biopic My Week With Marilyn (2011), but does not act in Cinderella.

The Prince's duties are handled by Scottish actor Madden, 28, best known for playing Robb Stark in the HBO series Game Of Thrones.

Robb and Prince Charming are royals who charge about on noble steeds. Madden, who loves riding, enjoyed learning the finer points of dressage and jumping seen in Cinderella.

There was, however, one other skill he had to pick up for the ballroom scene, especially given the long train on Cinderella's gown.

"Dancing - I hate it. I'm not naturally gifted as a dancer. I trained for 21/2 months, three or four days a week, before they let me near Cinderella's dress or else I would have destroyed it."

johnlui@sph.com.sg

Cinderella opens in cinemas tomorrow.