Grimm brothers, hold the grim atmosphere.
Before Disney decided it was time to remake all their animated features into live-action ventures, Hollywood thought it was time to revise the fairy tale genre. The revisionist fairy tale attempted to “reclaim” the Grimm brothers – whose original stories were aimed at teaching young girls that piousness and beauty were the keys to marriage and happiness – and refocus them as feminist stories. After two small-scale efforts, Snow White: A Tale of Terror and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. 20th Century Fox got in the game with Ever After: A Cinderella Story. Anchored by late-feminist icon Drew Barrymore’s graceful performance, Ever After still evokes the same clarion call for young women in 2018 that it initially did in 1998.
Set in 16th-century France the “true story” of Cinderella is presented. Danielle de Barbarac (Barrymore) grows up as the servant to her stepmother (Anjelica Huston) and stepsisters. Fiery and free-spirited Danielle attempts to save a fellow servant only to catch the eye of the prince (Dougray Scott), a man with a similar dream of breaking free of his station.
Veteran actress Jeanne Moreau starts this off, asking the Grimm brothers themselves to allow her to “set the record straight” regarding the little cinder girl. From there director Andy Tennant and writer Susannah Grant (who would later go on to write another feminist story, Erin Brockovich) give audiences a new and updated interpretation of the fairy tale best known for celebrating inappropriate footwear.
As a girl of 10 going on 20, Ever After appeased the part of me that felt fairy tales were babyish, yet still indulged a modified belief in “happily ever after.” Like me, Danielle is a compulsive reader whose father fosters in her a desire for independent thinking, and the belief that one day the class gap can be obliterated. (Dream big, Danielle!) The arrival of her stepmother and sisters, coupled with the requisite demise of her father, retains the familiar trappings of the story while opening the door for feminist changes.
Much of what makes Ever After so enjoyable isn’t the requisite romance, but the interaction of Barrymore with other women, particularly Anjelica Huston as her stepmother, Lady Rodmilla de Ghent. Unlike other fairy tales, where the women are evil for the sake of it, Ever After at least makes a valiant effort to give the women personalities. Huston’s air of intimidation and superiority makes her the perfect evil stepmother, besting the glamorous interpretation Cate Blanchett gave us in 2015. It’s alluded to that she only married Danielle’s father for financial security, a common trope in these feminist reinterpretations, and after he dies everything becomes her responsibility, like it or not.
Rodmilla thrusts out her prettier daughter, Marguerite (wonderfully played by Megan Dodds), at the expense of her plainer, sweet daughter Jacqueline (played by the always solid Melanie Lynskey). Without belaboring the point, the movie illustrates the time period as one where a woman’s worth is only illustrated in their looks and ability to marry wealthy men. The cattiness is funny – culminating with Danielle delivering a punch to her stepsister’s face – but comes from a place that feels real for the time.
It’s why Danielle, as a character is so vital. The script praises the new Cinderella’s intelligence and literary love. She can hold her own in a fight, outwits villains with her mental acuity, and saves her prince more than once! Barrymore’s coy smile is infectious and lets her blend the fairy tale elements of Cinderella’s personality – she’s kind to everyone – with ‘90s sensibilities of women.
Her chemistry with Dougray Scott’s Prince Henry is firmly in the romantic vein, but before Disney’s Enchanted had a princess saving her prince, Ever After did it first. When a group of gypsies attempt to rob Henry, it’s Danielle who saves him. Scott’s Henry – outside of his fabulous ‘90s hair – wants to escape his “gilded cage,” free of royal duties. It’s Danielle who convinces him to rule, not because he’s a king in the making but because his gender allows him to change the country for everyone. Danielle situates herself as a far stronger queen than Henry a king.
For a young girl who loved books, Ever After praised intelligence, a free-spirited attitude and an unwillingness to settle for less, skills women are told to suppress time and again. The film isn’t a grand masterpiece, but it presents a worldview for young women to idealize wrapped up in the marketable and charming world of a Grimms fairy tale. It’s Grimm brothers, hold the grim atmosphere.