What’s It All About?
The story is, but for a few details, the Cinderella story that we’re familiar with. Cinderella (here called Popelka and played by Libuse Safránková, who was also in Karel Kachyna’s The Little Mermaid, which I reviewed for this column a few months back) remains an orphaned girl, treated as a slave by her stepmother (Carola Braunbock) and stepsister (Daniela Hlavácová). There is still a royal ball, still a slipper that must fit the girl the Prince (Pavel Trávnícek) is going to marry but this version has no fairy Godmother, no Pumpkin coach and no ticking clock to midnight. Instead, Popelka wishes on magical hazelnuts and her wishes manifest as new clothes for each occasion. It is, essentially, a version with much of the Disneyfication stripped out.
Why Haven’t You Seen It?
As I mentioned with The Little Mermaid, there’s not much reason you should have heard of Three Wishes For Cinderella. Though it was apparently broadcast, in a dubbed version, on the BBC it has remained a rather obscure title, and was another that I discovered after seeing Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders. It appears to be better known, and something of a Christmas classic, in Europe.
Why Should You See It?
There is, I think, a reason that fairytales survive, a reason they are passed from generation to generation and endlessly reworked, details tweaked for local audiences. At their heart these are simple tales and the fact that the spine of the story is so strong means that not only can any audience relate to them but that they can each apply their imagination to them, casting themselves in the roles or inventing new pieces of incident. These stories are among the first we hear and among the first we learn to tell.
Three Wishes For Cinderella is a great example of how the essential story of a fairytale can be malleable. For those of us who grew up with Ladybird books and Disney movies, it retains enough that we know the story and the characters instinctively, but it also makes interesting changes, notably to Popelka herself. In this telling Popelka is not just the put upon maid, she looks for every opportunity to escape the walls of the castle where she lives, to ride her horse and to go hunting. This is the subject of her first wish: she throws one of the nuts to the ground and out pops a costume that makes her look like a young male hunter (this, it has to be said, is not the film’s most convincing illusion). Having previously encountered them while in her ragged dress, in this guise she even gets to show up the Prince and his friends, intercepting a bird they were attempting to hunt.
Libuse Safránková, a younger looking 19 when the film was made, is well cast as Popelka. Her longing for an escape from her stepmother and stepsister comes across strongly. She has a gentleness that works well in the scenes where the animals come to help her when her stepmother gives her spiteful tasks (separating corn and lentils into two piles) but also a sense of adventure and mischief that comes out when she’s with the Prince, whether she’s throwing snowballs at him, beating him at hunting, or setting him a riddle to prove his love. Pavel Trávnícek isn’t the most charismatic of princes, but Rolf Hoppe and Karin Lesch have a lot of fun as the King and Queen, as do Carola Braunbock and Daniela Hlavácová as the stepmother and stepsister.
For me though it’s really the visuals that mark Three Wishes For Cinderella out. It has a sense of being just a little removed from reality. The extensive location work (all of the exteriors and, I imagine, quite a few of the interiors) give the film a sense of being situated in a world we recognise. The costumes and props also reflect this. Certain things seem a little heightened, for instance the stepmother’s headpiece for the ball, which looks like a bat, but there’s nothing so outrageous that it doesn’t seem like something that could have been worn in the past. This, for me, makes the film’s little touches of magic feel all the more special, all the more magical.
Vaclav Vorlicek was a seasoned filmmaker when he made Three Wishes, and has gone on to many more films, including several with fairytale themes. This appears to be his best known work outside of the Czech Republic, and it’s a beautiful calling card. He makes wonderful use of the locations. The scenes in the forest, as the Prince hunts or as Popelka escapes the drudgery of the castle to be out in the snow, are lovely to look at and you can almost feel the cold. The ball is especially beautiful with the shot, from behind, of Popelka walking up to the castle being especially stunningly composed. It’s a film full of arresting images, but it’s in this scene that the film seems to go fully for a fairytale image, including the famous moments like Popelka losing her slipper (it’s not glass here) on the steps. It really is a magical sequence.
The word that comes to mind for Three Wishes For Cinderella is charming. It’s not likely to challenge you, but it’s a beautifully and engagingly told version of a familiar story with just enough variation in its small details that it doesn’t feel like it’s just treading over old ground. If you want to show it to your kids I’m certain that you’ll also find much to enjoy in it.
How Can You See It?
Great news, you can see this enormously undervalued film on the big screen this week. It’s screening on Sunday December 10th at 1pm at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton and 4:25pm at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill. I’d recommend it for families with kids of around 10 or up. One minor warning, there are two brief images of dead animals, they die off screen (in the hunting scenes), but these images might upset younger kids.
There is a UK DVD available from Second Run. The transfer is from a 4K restoration, done as part of a project to preserve the 10 most important Czech films. It’s a pity that there is no UK Blu Ray, but that’s to be expected as Second Run have only made very limited forays into that format. There is, however, an English friendly blu ray available through Amazon. It comes at a hefty price though, £34.99 at present.