Judging by the number of uninspired and derivative films we see these days, creating something truly fresh and imaginative on-screen is more difficult than turning a pumpkin into a carriage. But that's exactly what director Andy Tennant and his marvelous cast and crew do in Ever After, the most magical film to hit the big screen since Babe (1995). A variation on the classic Cinderella legend -- the script more or less follows the traditional Cinderella plot line but enlivens the proceedings with wit and charm and modern-day sensibilities -- the movie proves less a fairy tale than an adventure story.
Drew Barrymore is irresistible as the spirited Danielle -- a.k.a. Cinderella -- a sixteenth-century orphan treated as a servant by her demanding stepmother and stepsisters. While exhibiting an endearing vulnerability, Danielle is no passive victim. Intelligent, independent, and spunky as hell, she stands up for what she believes in. And she isn't waiting around for some prince on a white horse to come rescue her. One does show up, of course, in the sexy package of shaggy-haired Welsh actor Dougray Scott, who brings humor, masculinity, and a welcome air of emotional confusion to the role of Henry, a man who would like nothing so much as to be "freed from my gilded cage." Henry is given to rambling ruminations as he tries to find direction in life. One reason he is so drawn to Danielle is her enviable sense of purpose and commitment.
The film opens with Danielle as an eight-year-old tomboy, adoring and adored by her single-parent father, the baron (Jeroen Krabbe). He takes a new wife, the jealous Rodmilla (Anjelica Huston), but before they all settle in together, the baron dies, leaving poor Danielle to Rodmilla's cruel whims. Ten years pass. Despite her less-than-ideal home environment, Danielle grows into a compassionate, committed individual, with an optimistic outlook and a keen sense of social justice. In a break from lore, her stepsisters are not hideously ugly creatures; in fact Marguerite (newcomer Megan Dodds) is extremely attractive, albeit with a sour personality. And plump Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey, who hasn't been seen much since starring opposite Kate Winslet in 1994's Heavenly Creatures) really isn't such a bad egg.
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Not surprisingly, the central plot concerns the romance between Danielle and Henry, but other subplots and story strands are interwoven throughout, making the film far more than a dopey romance. The script assiduously avoids the pitfalls of cutesiness, corniness, and sentimentality. One or two scenes toward the end are too broad and one key plot development doesn't ring true, but overall the story, characters, and relationships between those characters feel absolutely natural. It's as if the people and events on-screen are real, as if moviegoers have boarded a time machine and been dropped into the distant past.
Director Tennant, a heretofore undistinguished filmmaker (1997's Fools Rush In), hits just the right notes of irreverence, dreamy romanticism, and spirited feminism, and he elicits winning performances from his entire cast, which also includes veteran British actors Timothy West and Judy Parfitt as the king and queen of France, Henry's exasperated but loving parents. While everyone stays completely in character and of their time period, they all somehow manage to make these sixteenth-century figures seem contemporary in spirit and easily identifiable. Credit for this must also go to the actors and screenwriters Susannah Grant, Rick Parks, and Tennant. In one imaginative departure, the writers have retooled the fairy godmother role. Who needs magic wands and fairy dust when a real-life genius like Leonardo da Vinci is around to help out?
Production values are outstanding, including Andrew Dunn's dazzling cinematography (the first time Barrymore appears on-screen, the light and shadows playing on her still form suggest a da Vinci masterpiece) and George Fenton's effervescent score. The music is marred only by an overly contemporary song that accompanies the final credits. But such complaints are minor. Ever After is a rare bird: a film that practically sparkles with a sense of wonderment.
Directed by Andy Tennant. Written by Andy Tennant, Susannah Grant, and Rick Parks. Starring Drew Barrymore, Anjelica Huston, and Dougray Scott.