Screenplay : Susannah Grant and Andy Tennant & Rick Parks
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Drew Barrymore (Danielle), Anjelica Huston (Rodmilla), Dougray Scott (Prince Henry), Patrick Godfrey (Leonardo da Vinci), Megan Dodds (Marguerite), Melanie Lynskey (Jacqueline de Ghent), Timothy West (King Francis), Judy Parfitt (Queen Marie), Jeroen Krabbé (Auguste), Lee Ingleby (Gustave), Kate Lansbury (Paulette), Matyelok Gibbs (Louise)
"Ever After" is a surprisingly passionate reworking of the classic Grimm Brothers' tale of "Cinderella." The movie consciously evokes the existence of the story as a story by using a framing device, where the Grimm Brothers themselves are called to the chateau of an old woman (Jean Moreau) who proceeds to inform them that she liked their story, but in actuality they got it all wrong. This woman knows what really happened, and she begins to recount for them the actual events that occurred.
Of course, this version is just as much a fairy tale as the Grimm Brothers' version is. In fact, the movie seems to confuse what the Grimm Brothers wrote with what Walt Disney put on celluloid in 1950. There is mention in the opening scenes of the Grimm Brothers writing about glass slippers and magic pumpkins, both of which are Disney inventions. The Grimm Brothers wrote about golden slippers and magic birds that pecked the eyes out of the evil stepsisters at the end of the story.
"Ever After" drops the violent content that typifies Grimm fairy tales, and concentrates more on the romanticism. It vaguely follows the trajectory of the Grimm Brothers' tale, although it removes all hints of the supernatural or magical. The "little cinder girl" here is 18-year old Danielle (Drew Barrymore), who lived in the French countryside during the 16th century Renaissance under the rule of King Francis I (the movie works in several historical characters and events, but takes large literary license with who was alive when).
Danielle's father, Auguste (Jeroen Krabbé) died when she was eight, and in the Grimm Brothers' own words, "Then began a sad time for the unfortunate stepchild." Danielle is left alone with her recently acquired stepmother, the Baroness Rodmilla (Anjelica Huston) and two stepsisters, the snooty-bitchy Marguerite (Megan Dodds) and the homely but decent Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey).
Danielle is reduced to the role of servant, which in actuality doesn't bother her all that much. She's a strong-willed girl with a huge heart, and she enjoys working her father's land and feeling like she's accomplishing something. Her father used to read with her as a child, so she has turned into a precocious reader, such that she can spout the ideology of Sir Thomas Moore's "Utopia" to defend her distasteful views of the wastefulness of royalty and the class system in general. At first, Danielle's ultra-liberal, modern feminist viewpoint seem to grate against the material, but it eventually works its into being a necessary part of the story.
Danielle first runs into her eventual love interest, Prince Henry (Dougray Scott), when he is trying to escape his father's clenched little world of royalty and arranged marriages. Like Danielle, Henry is a free spirit who does not like to be confined by predetermined roles and titles. Their only difference is that he is trapped among the wealthy while she is trapped among the poor.
When Danielle disguises herself as a wealthy courtier in order to free one of her father's servants whom Rodmilla sold in order to pay off her own debt, she encounters Henry again. Henry is taken with her, not only because of her beauty, but because she says things he wouldn't expect from a courtier. She expresses sympathy for the plight of the working class, and she doesn't mind doing un-ladylike things like swimming alone and climbing trees.
While Danielle and Henry are naturally falling in love with each other, Rodmilla is scheming and planning ways to get Henry to marry Marguerite, so that she and her daughters will be guaranteed riches and luxury for the rest of their lives. In a nutshell, the conflict between what Danielle is doing and what Rodmilla is scheming is what "Ever After" is all about: the stark difference between love and ambitious greed.
In "Ever After," director Andy Tennant has created an old-fashioned love story that somehow feels new. The movie starts slow, and in the first half hour it seems doubtful that he will be able to pull this off. For a while, the film seems at risk of becoming a parody of itself; but once you get used to Drew Barrymore with an accent and allow yourself to sink into the fairy tale world of good and evil, "Ever After" actually sweeps you away with its unabashed romanticism.
Barrymore and Scott create real heat in their scenes together, not only because of their acting abilities, but because the screenplay (by Susannah Grant ["Pocahontes"], Andy Tennant, and Rick Parks) gives them things to talk about. The movie never lets us forget that they fall in love with each other primarily for their similar interests and the way they spark each other to be better people. Henry makes Danielle drop some of her liberal pretensions and realize that not all royalty are thoughtless snobs, and Danielle makes Henry realize the worth of caring about and making sacrifices for less fortunate people.
In her role as Rodmilla, Huston takes the same kind of loving viciousness that made her so good as Morticia in "The Addams Family" movies, and makes it purely sinister, with no hint of fun. Her Rodmilla is the very essence of the "wicked stepmother," although the film does allow her a few scenes that hint of humanity buried far beneath her selfishness. Rodmilla's brand of evil is effective not because it is wild-eyed and violent, but because it is probing, insulting, and disarming. When Danielle, in a fit of sadness, tearfully asks if Rodmilla had ever loved her as a daughter, even just a little bit, Rodmilla answers in a cold tone, "How could I love a pebble in my shoe?" Rodmilla is quintessential evil because she is incapable of caring about anyone but herself.
Essentially, "Ever After" is a sweet movie that delivers much more than would be expected. It's smartly-written, well-acted, and features beautiful photography at breathtaking European locations. The movie is also quite funny at times, and much of the humor is derived from the character of none other than Leonardo da Vinci (Patrick Godfrey). And, if you can't imagine how the painter of the "Mona Lisa" could fit unobtrusively into a reworking of the Cinderella myth, you'll be surprised as just how seamless his involvement is.
©1998 James Kendrick