Of the many folk tales distilled by the Brothers Grimm into their collection of fairy tales, "Cinderella" is one that resides uncomfortably in women's unconscious. Work hard and be subservient, it says between the lines, and one day your prince will appear to rescue you.
So what function does Cinderella have today, when women not only don't expect that prince to appear, but quite rightly doubt his existence? Revisionism, of course. But the interesting thing about Ever After, a lush period piece set in 16th century France, is how far it does -- and doesn't -- go in reinventing the Cinderella story.
After the untimely death of her father, Danielle (Drew Barrymore) is left in the care of her resentful stepmother, Rodmilla (Anjelica Huston), and ends up becoming a servant in what was formerly her home. Even as she religiously reads Thomas More's Utopia, Danielle has seemingly accepted her servitude. Rodmilla is, after all, a baroness, titled nobility who gets what she demands.
But nearby, Henry (Dougray Scott), crown prince of France, seeks to escape the "gilded cage" of royal duty. The lovers first encounter each other when the spunky Danielle knocks a cloaked horse thief right off his saddle with a well-placed apple, then shockingly realizes it's the prince. From this unlikely beginning, director Andy Tennant weaves a romance that's as much about self-fulfillment as true love. Danielle asserts her individual dignity while Henry accepts the responsibilities of his birthright.
Tennant (who co-wrote the screenplay with Susannah Grant and Rick Parks) spices up the stepsisters -- making one a porcelain blonde goddess-demanding bitch, the other reticent, plump, increasingly rebellious and barely tolerated by Rodmilla. He replaces the standard issue fairy godmother with a benevolent and funny Leonardo da Vinci.
But the movie belongs to Anjelica Huston and Drew Barrymore, who are ideally cast. Alternately ruthless, seductive, cold, fawning and funny, Huston's Rodmilla is a well-rounded villainess. Barrymore's Danielle displays deep reservoirs of strength, determination and intelligence.
In Ever After, Cinderella hasn't done away with the prince altogether, but does demonstrate that she's perfectly capable of rescuing herself.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.