Movie review: Cruella
By forcing the viewer to watch a girl go bad, director Craig Gillespie’s Cruella asks hard questions about how society values women, and whether it’s possible to be a fairy tale princess without being a victim.
Starring: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong, John McRae, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Tipper Seifert-Cleveland
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Running time: 2hrs 14 mins
Opening May 28 in theatres and Disney +
By Katherine Monk
Toot toot, hey, beep beep! Toot toot, hey, beep beep! Bad girls. Donna Summer tooted and beeped about the perils of the bad girls, but like the song itself, bad girls have a particular power to pull us in because they’re, well, bad. Bad girls don’t do what good girls do. They break rules, challenge the status quo, and every once in a while, upset the apple cart so much they force a revision of reality itself.
Whether we’re talking about archetypal shit-disturbers such as Eve and Pandora, or the mountain of modern female villains imagined by a new generation of male writers, bad girls are narrative gold because they’ve made a conscious decision to operate outside the box of feminine expectation — forcing us to re-examine the whole pink and taffeta package of gender performance as a whole.
Nowhere is this capacity more evident than in the recent run of revisionist Disney outings that challenge the very core of the fairy princess mystique. First, we watched Angelina Jolie bring full-hearted humanity to Maleficent, the evil force in Sleeping Beauty. Now, it’s Emma Stone’s turn to give Cruella a post-Freudian rebirth, and thanks to director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, Lars and the Real Girl), the result is a chubby little package of fits and giggles that takes its cues from two completely different sets of references: Disney and Dante.
Originally introduced to the world in 1961 as the diabolical fashion designer in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Cruella DeVil was a pastiche of nasty double-X cliche. Vain, sadistic and willing to use anyone to get her own way, Cruella presented a predictable foe in the animated formula, but she took it one step further: She stole dogs. Creepier still, she pilfered the pooches in the hope of making a fur coat.
Such a character would seem to be irredeemable, which means Gillespie had to turn Stone into a rough gem — a character with flaws, but an inner beauty that could be cut away with the right strikes of the chisel. For the man who turned disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding into a believably sympathetic victim, finding the right angle wasn’t going to be a problem. Just as he did in I, Tonya, he takes us back to the beginning, where we aren’t looking at an adult being cruel — but a child being abused.
Indeed, we meet little Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) as a girl growing up outside London, and getting into lots of trouble. Despite the best efforts of her kind mother, Estella keeps racking up black marks on her school record. The other kids mock her head of half-black, half-white hair, and Estella doesn’t take teasing lying down. She’s only too happy to fly into a rage and send them to the school nurse — earning her the nickname ‘Cruella.’
Eventually, Estella is expelled and forced to find a new school. She and her mum dream of starting a new life in the city, but on their way to London they make stop at a fancy ball — and tragedy strikes. Estella is orphaned, opening up a freeway of warm feelings and paving the way for family dynamics with her new friends, Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) — two street urchins who help her adjust to life as an outsider and petty thief. They’re a solid criminal trio, but there’s a part of Estella that wonders about life on the other side — the straight, legitimate, honest day’s work world where girls can be powerful without being “bad.”
Or, at least, that’s what Estella thought when she landed a dream job at the Baroness house of fashion. Fascinated by haute couture ever since she was knee-high, Estella understands patterns, textures and the bias of a given fabric, so when she meets the queen of the cut, the much-celebrated Baroness (Emma Thomspson), she’s rapt.
She soon becomes a valuable apprentice, creating designs the Baroness claims as her own, but the more Estella tries to be good, the more justification she has for being bad. The Baroness is a sociopath who goes out of her way to debase and demean Estella, forcing the young apprentice to plot her own brand of revenge — and exhume Cruella.
When Gillespie clears the decks and offers up these two potent women in opposite corners, the bad girl boxing match starts in earnest, and the audience is treated to an epic battle between bad-ass archetypes running wild and un-muzzled in the world of fashion.
Bitch fights are always good fun because they’re wordy and psychologically trenchant, but set them in the world where the devil wears Prada, and they become pure spectacle capable of slicing off large swaths of priapic pretension.
Gillespie revels in references to 70s punk, and particularly, to the free and unfettered spirit of anti-Chanel goddess Vivienne Westwood. Westwood pulled inspiration from rubbish cans and safety-pinned patchwork, giving bad musicians an aesthetic that overcame their inherent lack of talent and turned them into a counter-culture statement. (For more on Vivienne Westwood, check out the truly revelatory look at the origins of punk fashion in the Westwood documentary: Westwood: Punk. Icon. Activist.)
Gillespie endows Cruella with a genius fashion sense that not only makes her superior to the Baroness, but sets her up as a messenger of what lies ahead — a fashion prophet of the future. Though it’s not as crisp as it could have been, the director establishes a contrast between tradition and rebellion, between structured gowns and shredded bodices, between the Baroness and Cruella that symbolizes a sea change in female systems of worth.
Though it’s not as crisp as it could have been, the director establishes a contrast between tradition and rebellion, between structured gowns and shredded bodices, between the Baroness and Cruella that symbolizes a sea change in female systems of worth.
Every frame is filled with unspoken tension that gives the two Emmas endless emotional fabric to work with, and they create some beautifully uncomfortable pieces. Thompson finesses the power of the sneer into a soul-piercing stiletto, but Stone has a tougher job because underneath all the anger, she has to remain sympathetic — even when she does and says evil things.
She gets some help from the makeup department, and the use of a red wig which resembles her own hair, but it’s her ability to nail the existential angst of her character that hits the performance home.
Cruella’s life has been plagued by pain and disappointment, and often, she wonders why she was born at all. Yet, instead of surrendering to the suffering, she fights back. More importantly, she creates a new pattern for female behaviour that resists victimhood and vacuous chatter, so even if Cruella emerges as a bad-ass villain, her actions can be seen as heroic because she is honest and unafraid. In short, she leaves the Disney princess stereotype with stitches and a few scars, but a whole new raison d’être that undresses female reality. The only thing the film can’t do is wrap up all these sprawling themes in a pretty package. The film feels a little fringed and thready on the narrative side, but thanks to the two leads, it wears it awfully well.