The fairytale has notably been stripped of all fantastic elements. Much effort is made to make it seem a realistic fairy-tale instead of playing up the colourful pageantry as many previous attempts have done, Andy Tennant plays it down. The film is photographed in dun, grey and green earth tones rather than for extravagant colour and the costumery is played for plain realism rather than opulence. Tennant also conducts the novel task of rooting the story in a pseudo-historical past there are appearances by Leonardo da Vinci and the Brothers Grimm, jokes about the Anglican divorce secession, whileThomas Mores Utopia (1516, 1551) plays an important part in the plot and is even quoted in chunks (probably the first for a film). Tennant also brings out the implied class discourse that exist in the original fairy-tale Cinderella is after all a fantasy about movement between the lowest of class (servanthood) and into the highest of class (marriage into the aristocracy) with Cinderella and the prince engaging in a series of lively debates about feudalism, slavery and royal decree. Tennant adds considerable depth to the fairytale the characters are all exceptionally well drawn, with considerable depths of shading being given to a usually one-dimensional character like the Wicked Stepmother. Many a lesser film would simply have stayed with puncturing the myth and left it at that but Tennant also manages the more difficult task of both having his cake and eating it by deconstructing the fairytale while also allowing the film to draw on the same romantic appeals and fantasy that the original story does too.
The film is also very well cast. Drew Barrymore may be the wrong actress for the part of Cinderella. She has a plain roundedness of looks, rather than the downcast beauty waiting to blossom that the role is all about. Drew seems to be abandoning her bad girl parts of recent years for light romantic leads in films like The Wedding Singer (1998), Home Fries (1998), Never Been Kissed (1999) and 50 First Dates (2004) but as an adult actress she never quite has the acting ability to do more than blush cutely. However, the part here is carried by a good deal of earnest good cheer on her part and the strength of the writing. All the supporting cast give fine performances. Anjelica Huston is on excellent form as the stepmother, giving a delicious performance of haughty cruelty without ever allowing the part to topple into one-dimensionality or caricature. Also of note is Melanie Lynskey who steals a number of scenes as the less socially adept stepsister there is a romance between her and a guard captain at the ball that is charmingly conducted as a series of horse whinnies.
This was Andy Tennants only venture into fantastic material. He has otherwise made films mostly in the light romantic comedy vein with the likes of It Takes Two (1995), Fools Rush In (1997), the lavish remake of Anna and the King (1999), Sweet Home Alabama (2002), Hitch (2005), Fools Gold (2008), The Bounty Hunter (2010) and Wild Oats (2016).
(Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Anjelica Huston) and Best Supporting Actress (Melanie Lynskey) at this sites Best of 1998 Awards).