Fairy tales can come true. The legend of Cinderella has apparently inspired more than 500 tales of a young woman, abused by parents and siblings, who gets the guy in the clinch. “Ever After” goes to the same well to tell the saga realistically, without stripping it of its magical qualities. A lush, romantic reinvention of the story, the new version is a quality outing that may falter less for what’s onscreen than for the baggage associated with the story. While the original has long been a staple of children’s lit, “Ever After” is primarily aimed at the young adult audience of Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo & Juliet,” and the pic’s success will be dependent upon that crowd’s picking up on it right away. Given the challenge of succeeding with disparate audiences, pic will likely fall short of its full B.O. potential, and subsequent video life could be marred if it doesn’t work for preteen auds.
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The new telling begins with the Brothers Grimm being summoned to the home of a wealthy dowager (Jeanne Moreau). She brings up their story of the “cinder girl” and its many prior interpretations. Then, motioning for a servant with a box, she presents a beaded shoe and informs the writers that the true story involved her ancestor.
Told in flashback, yarn centers on Danielle, seen first as the 8-year-old daughter of a wealthy, widowed land-owner in 16th century France. He returns home from travels with a new bride, the titled Rodmilla (Anjelica Huston), and her two daughters. In the blink of an eye, he succumbs to a heart attack, and, when the story picks up a decade later, Danielle (Drew Barrymore) has been relegated to servant status.
But fate takes a hand in elevating her from a life of indenture. Henry (Dougray Scott), the heir to the throne, has taken flight rather than accept an arranged marriage to a Spanish princess. Mistaking him for a thief when she eyes him plucking a horse from the farm, Danielle knocks him off his perch with an apple. Only then does she recognize the royal crest, and begs his forbearance.
She is no ordinary servant. Besides being plucky, Danielle is learned, thanks to her father’s teaching her to read and to think analytically. The prince notices her when she poses as a lady to free another servant who’s been sold to a New World exploration team: Using an argument from Thomas More, she wins the man’s freedom.
The script by Susannah Grant, Rick Parks and director Andy Tennant successfully maintains the story’s period trappings while introducing a heroine with modern resonance. No shrinking violet, Danielle is cut from the same cloth as the title character of “There’s Something About Mary” — determined, self-sufficient and romantic. The difference is that these qualities weren’t exactly trumpeted in women who lived four centuries back. So, while Henry is taken with the woman he assumes is of royal blood, he has also been bred to have strong attitudes about station, class and gender.
The bridge between old and new ideas is rather inventively provided by Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey), the Italian inventor and artist who, in the story, has recently accepted the patronage of the French court. He’s the voice of reason and of Henry’s heart.
Rodmilla, who’s concerned only with artifice and station, embodies the forces of the past; at the same time, her cold, calculating nature gives her a contemporary edge.
The filmmakers’ vivid creation of a bygone era is impressive. One can quibble only about a languorous style and a tendency to overplay the villainy of the stepmother and her eldest daughter. But these are small glitches in an otherwise first-rate effort.
Barrymore continues to prove herself as a performer of extraordinary range and charisma, and is simply sublime in the leading role. Newcomer Scott convinces as a full-blooded prince. Huston effectively embodies a classical-style villainess without succumbing to caricature. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, and tech credits are close to pristine.