★★★★ - EMPIRE
- With killer looks, propulsive filmmaking, and stellar turns from Emmas Stone and Thompson, Cruella is a treat -
After experiencing tragedy at a young age, the reckless and creative Estella (Emma Stone) falls into a life of crime in 1970s London — until she has the chance to live out her dreams of becoming a designer under the tutelage of fearsome fashion legend The Baroness (Emma Thompson).
In the original, animated 101 Dalmatians, there was nothing black-and-white about Cruella de Vil. As her name less implied, more flat-out screamed, she was a Disney villain drawn delightfully, deliciously dark. Kudos, then, to director Craig Gillespie for pulling off a live-action prequel that adds a few shades of grey without muddying the character one bit, leaning into Cruella’s inherent flamboyance for a slick and stylish clothing caper.
Unlike the Sleeping Beauty villain-reimagining Maleficent, which tied itself in narrative knots attempting to retool the classic fairy tale, Cruella wisely divorces itself from the context of the original film. Where that was released in 1961, based on Dodie Smith’s novel from the ’50s, this largely takes place in the 1970s — recontextualising Cruella’s raucous sartorial stylings as a punk explosion, railing against conformity and scoffing at the safety of the Swinging Sixties. It’s a colourful background for a reimagined origin story that takes a young Estella (an impressive Tipper Seifert-Cleveland in an opening act coursing with Matilda-esque mischief) and morphs her into the cackling Cruella via a life of crime, a stint on the shop floor of Liberty, and a job at the most fearsome fashion house in London.
The result is a tale of two Emmas. Central, of course, is Stone, teasing out Estella’s encroaching evil while retaining all the charismatic screen presence that’s defined her career so far — and pulling off a decent British accent to boot. Among the theatricality (in one scene she tumbles onto a red carpet from a bin lorry in a giant rubbish-dress) and the two-tone wigs, she finds moments of humanity without diminishing Cruella’s delectable extremity. But it’s Emma Thompson who threatens to steal the film as The Baroness — a fashion boss whose cutthroat nature extends well beyond the catwalk. Whether she’s slashing at garments with a straight razor, loudly reading her own rave reviews, or calling people “imbeciles” with fatal levels of derision, she’s a killer creation. Thompson plays it to absolute perfection, running away with every scene she’s in.
The pair are so much fun that other players struggle to get a look-in. Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser entertain as Estella’s comrades-in-crime, but Mark Strong’s valet, John, sinks into the background, Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s journalist Anita (a nod to the original Dalmatians) appears often while saying little, and John McCrea’s Bowie-esque, androgynous boutique owner Artie is a disappointingly fleeting presence — he’s intriguing enough to deserve his own film.
Though Cruella could easily lose 20 minutes, Gillespie keeps the energy high throughout. The Scorsesean riffs he brought to I, Tonya continue here, from a stacked soundtrack of ’60s and ’70s greats (The Clash, Blondie, The Stooges), to a stunning extended tracking shot through the halls of Liberty. What could have been a mere IP cash-in instead becomes an unexpectedly cinematic crime-and-couture romp, delivered with the sort of style, snarl and eccentricity that Cruella herself would likely applaud. She makes being bad look very good.
Cruella is now playing at Light House Cinema!