“Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister,” based on the book by Gregory Maguire, attempts to address gender politics, bigotry and conformity with a reworking of the Grimm fairy tale “Cinderella” from the stepsister’s point of view. It’s a tall order that director Gavin Millar and an extremely talented cast are able to meet with aplomb.
To dismiss the movie as a politically correct gloss-over is a mistake. In the same way Maguire reworked “The Wizard of Oz” in his novel “Wicked,” he creates here a more believable account of two blended families coming together and fulfilling their destinies without magical intervention.
Ironically, this production for ABC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney” flies in the face of many of the studio’s animated fairy tale classics. Detractors of everything Mickey have been crying foul for years regarding the subtext of some of its kidpix, which supposedly reinforce notions of beauty as goodness and ugliness as evil, among other things.
But while some of the newer family movies preach morality with all the subtlety of a blow to the head, director Millar and screenwriter Gene Quintano clearly understand Maguire’s vision and have created a lush and captivating account about discovering inner harmony. Production designer Roger Hall works the only magic needed in the film with his immaculate set in Luxembourg standing in for 17th-century Holland.
Promoted to same audiences that have grown up on Disney’s fairy tales, the movie may be a bit too esoteric for younger viewers. Girls 10 and older will not only understand but appreciate the sentiments.
The story begins as Iris (Azura Skye) and her sister Ruth (Emma Poole) flee England in distress as their mother, Margarethe (Stockard Channing), has once again gotten the family into trouble with her constant conniving; back in Holland, Margarethe soon returns to scheming.
The family is befriended by the Master (Jonathan Pryce), a talented painter of modest means. When he is commissioned to paint a picture of Clara Van Der Meer (Jenna Harrison), the daughter of a widowed tulip merchant, Margarethe seizes the opportunity to move up in society.
Iris is hired to tutor Clara, who due to her sheltered life has become demanding and unsociable. Meanwhile, Margarethe worms her way into a role as head of household and eventually lady of the house, much to Clara’s dismay.
Margarethe doesn’t tolerate Clara’s constant self-pity; in defiance of her new mother, Clara withdrawals even further into her shell, taking over cleaning and kitchen duties. When Van Der Meer’s tulip business goes broke, Margarethe rests her hopes on a visiting prince in search of a wife and persuades the reluctant Iris to go win him over at a ball.
Once again, it is a slipper that determines whom the Prince shall marry, but not until everyone has broken free of their socially predetermined positions. Iris, at first dismissed as plain, finds her own strength and beauty and, with the help of the Master, discovers a love of art. Clara, tired of being merely an object of beauty, breaks free of her fears and becomes a functioning member of society. Even Margarethe learns a lesson in humility.
To that end, Channing is a marvel as Margarethe, carefully straddling the line between resilient and reviled. Her performance generates more empathy than the stepmother as usually depicted.
Skye is far too beguiling to be considered plain, let alone ugly, but she does a wonderful job of empowering Iris. Similarly, Harrison has big slippers to fill in this version of Cinderella, and makes a good case for beauty as a burden.
Gerard Simon clearly relishes his job behind the camera, capturing interiors and exteriors with Rembrandt-like precision. Penny Rose’s costumes are memorable but not ostentatious.