03 June 2012

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: NEW-FASHIONED FAIRY TALES

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: there are many ways that musty old folklore can be dusted off and freshened up for a modern audience, and Snow White and the Huntsman takes the probably inevitable "dark and edgy" route. And while that approach certainly has its place, it's nice to know that there are also films that aim for a bit more sincerity.

One sentence is hardly enough evidence to make a judgment about a film's quality, yet I put it to you that there is absolutely no reason to think that "Drew Barrymore stars in a 'realistic' costume drama version of the Cinderella story, with Leonardo da Vinci as a supporting character" would ever result in a movie that's even slightly tolerable, let alone quite good. It's for this reason, I think, that Ever After made such a small impact on its release in 1998, despite having largely positive reviews, as such things go. And truth be told, I did cheat a bit by mentioning Leonardo - yes, he's in the movie, but he is by a commanding margin the worst thing in it. As for Barrymore, it's certainly not hard to have a fairly immediate and pronounced negative response to the knowledge that she's involved with a picture, I have found, and doubly so when you go in armed with the knowledge that she's going to be attempting an anonymous but mostly British 16th Century Mitteleuropean accent; and yet she's absolutely charming here, exactly as warm and passionate and delicate as needed by the script, when it's needed. Go figure.

The movie starts with what is, undoubtedly, one of the most peculiar appeals to authority I have ever witnessed: in France, sometime after the Revolution, a grand noblewoman (Jeanne Moreau), calls in brother Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm (Joerg Stadler and Andy Henderson), having just read their new collection of folklore and wanting to praise them for it, and also to express one tiny complaint: she feels they butchered the Cinderella story. She absolutely prefers their version to the one popularised by Frenchman Charles Perrault - because Perraut, seriously fuck that guy - but as it just so happens, she is a descendant of the actual Cinderella - that's her portrait, right there - and here is the slipper covered in precious stones, not actually "glass" - would you boys like to hear what really happened?

And so we flash back to the 16th Century, where prosperous farmer Auguste de Barbarac (Jeroen Krabbé) has just married widowed baroness Rodmilla de Ghent (Anjelica Huston), whose two daughters he hopes will be good friends to his own daughter, Danielle. This is not to be the case: Auguste dies on the very day that he brings his new bride home, and she spends the next ten years terrorising her stepdaughter, using the girl's low birth as an excuse to reduce her to maidservant in the home that is hers by birthright.

Thus we arrive to find a grown-up Danielle (Barrymore) living a generally ghastly life while Rodmilla, and her beloved eldest daughter Marguerite (Megan Dodds) live idle, mean lives, burning through the de Barbarac fortune and ruining Danielle's beloved farm. As for the other stepsister, Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey), she's actually quite a kindly soul, tormented by a mother who can't stop making fat jokes at her expense, and she and Danielle end up being allies and friends in the emotionally rotten manor house.

Meanwhile, the Royal Family of France happens to be in the neighborhood - realistic version of the story, you know, and Crown Prince Henry (Dougray Scott), anxious to avoid being married off to a Spanish princess, has fled the castle; he and Danielle cross paths, and once she stops accusing him of horse thievery, she lies and pretends to be a countess, in order to secure the release of one of the de Barbarac servants from indentured servitude. Henry obviously falls in love with her immediately, and she obviously falls in love with him but fools herself into thinking that he's too fatuous and dumb for her - because without the first part, there'd be no movie, and without the second, we couldn't call this a feminist Cinderella story - and it all plays out mostly like a romantic comedy costume drama in which, to keep the tone right, the comedy isn't actually very funny; but the meet cute and the trying not to fall in love and the "oops, you found out my secret about two seconds before I was going to confess" moment and all, those are all in exactly the right place. Also, yes, Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey) is there, visiting the French court to receive an award for being the most badass thinking of the Renaissance. He finds Danielle's plight wonderfully touching, and decides, not entirely with her consent, to smooth the road for true love. Not, unfortunately, by turning a pumpkin into a coach, but if anybody in history could have found a way, it would have been Leonardo, yes? Also, here's how you can tell that, despite the accents, Ever After is 100% American: every last character including the genius himself talks as though "da Vinci" is his family name, and that is how he should be referred to in semi-formal conversation.

Okay, so it's silly as hell. There's no two ways about that. And the dialogue is wildly anachronistic - Henry gets a "don't be so old-fashioned, it's the 16th Century line" that was already a groaner when it popped up in Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Heck, the whole entire situation is anahronistic: I admire the tendency of the 1990s to re-work traditional period narratives with strong, pre-feminist female leads, but if a woman as forthright about Girl Power as Danielle de Barbarac had actually existed in Renaissance-era France, I imagine she'd have put to a particularly imaginative death by the local religious authorities with very little haste. And the whole matter of mapping the story directly onto the lives of of Francis I (Timothy West) and Henry II of France is a bold decision that creates a historical nightmare (chief among the issues thus raised: the lives of Henry and Leonardo overlapped by all of 33 days). Indeed, given that the "gimmick" is that this is the real Cinderella story, the historical realism of the film is by far its weakest element, and that causes it some problems.

But, given that we're not actually showing up for an historical biopic about real people, but a fun, light romance in old castles, Ever After does just fine for itself, thanks. It is not a great movie - director Andy Tennant uses an undistinguished visual palette that would be totally unremarkable without Jenny Beavan's outstanding (and decidedly unrealistic) costumes - but it's charmng, so damn charming, and that's thanks firstly to its nonstop consequence-free tone (it's extremely hard to imagine anything genuinely bad happening to anybody, even the villains), and second to its game cast who are having an obviously marvelous time sashaying about and saying gaily artificial dialogue. Especially, and this isn't much of a surprise, in retrospect, Barrymore and Huston. And I say this as one who usually has very little use for Drew Barrymore. But she's a perfect fit for this role, nailing the sturdy '90s girl spine of Danielle while also playing up the sweetness and naïveté of a fairy tale heroine. It's actually a bit of a tricky balance - Disney itself tried and failed to do the same thing more than once - and it's a pleasing enough performance that I'm willing to spot the actress her oddball accent.

And then, Huston... could there be any doubt that Anjelica Huston would be a perfect wicked stepmother? Her entire star persona is based on being unapproachably glamorous without also being beautiful, and having a bit of an authoritarian iciness to her. Frankly, the only real surprise is that it took so many years before someone gave her a role like this, and that she hasn't done it again since. Sure, it's a performance she could do in her sleep, but she's fairly animated and active most of the time, and that's exactly what movie stars are for: they give the performance we know they can, and we love them for it.

Absent Huston and Barrymore, Ever After would probably be a much lesser film, but I imagine that they'd just have found two other actors, and moved on. It's really sort of an everything-proof movie: there's so much imperfect about it, and yet it's so infectiously pleasant, that I cannot fathom how one could go about hating it. It's unabashed fluff that, simply, works. I'm not sure what to say about something that circumvents my critical shields like that, other than being pleased for it to have done so.

2 comments:

Kelsy said...

Spot on. I always forget how pleasant this movie is until I somehow run into it, usually on a sick day.

David Greenwood said...

"Frankly, the only real surprise is that it took so many years before someone gave [Huston] a role like this, and that she hasn't done it again since."

This immediately brought to mind her villainous witch-queen in The Witches. The Witches is one of my favorite children's stories, exemplifying the cruelty and honestly of Roald Dahl. The movie wasn't perfect, and tacked on a happier ending, but it visualized the story very well, and I still enjoy it to this day. Of course Huston knocks it out of the park again as eeeeevil ice queen death lady.

Though I must be honest... to me, she'll always be Morticia.