Cruella film review: fashion-forward origin story is barking but ultimately fabulous

·4-min read
 (Disney)
(Disney)

This live-action Disney origin story stars Emma Stone as a fashion doyenne’s assistant and is being hyped as a fresh take on The Devil Wears Prada. It’s actually more convoluted than that tag would suggest. I’d go so far as to say that the plot is a bit of a dog’s dinner. Not to worry. When it counts, Craig Gillespie’s blockbuster proves delicious.

We get our kicks, these days, by falling in love with iconic villains. Maleficent. The Joker. Right now, the spotlight’s on 101 Dalmatians’ fashion-crazed, dog-killing aristocrat, Cruella de Vil.

Via prequels, supposedly beyond-the-pale figures get to tell their side of the story, exposing past tragedies and mental vulnerability. Such succulent roles, naturally, attract top actors. Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for his turn as Arthur Fleck. Stone deserves to be nominated, at the very least, for her exquisitely witty and emotionally raw performance.

The given name of the film’s anti-heroine is Estella and we first meet her as a babe in arms. Estella’s mum, Catherine (Emily Beecham), clearly oblivious to the dangers of encouraging the development of an evil alter ego, dubs her daughter “Cruella” whenever the kid misbehaves. Á la Matilda, this extraordinary child is a natural iconoclast. When it comes to fashion, she’s also an autocratic, unethical brat. Estella is wildly impressed by a gown that contains chiffon and – shudder! – fur.

An unfortunate incident leaves Estella mother-less and wracked with guilt. Cruella, she decides, needs to stay in the closet.

Years later, she’s living in 70s London with fellow orphans Horace and Jasper (Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry) and bags a job working for a tyrannical fashion designer, the Baroness (an on-form Emma Thompson, as camp as she is gothic). Every now and again, Estella bumps into her nice old school friend, Anita (Kirby Howell-Baptiste; wryly wholesome), a photographer and gossip columnist for the amusingly-titled Tittle-Tattle magazine.

 (Laurie Sparham)
(Laurie Sparham)

Then new facts come to light and Estella stops blaming herself for her mother’s death. Uh-oh – here comes trouble.

Once Estella releases her inner Cruella, the verbal and visual fireworks never let up. This is one of the kookiest London movies you will ever see and British costume designer Jenny Beavan, always astounding, finds a way to surpass herself.

A second-hand-boutique on the Portobello Road, run by Artie (a scene-stealing John McCrea), is uncannily like the real thing. You can all but smell the damp ‘n’ mothballs on those gorgeously clumpy vintage dresses. Estella expresses herself through her increasingly punky, Vivienne Westwood-ish designs. There’s a dress made of “rubbish” that’s as magical as a Cirque du Soleil show, and homage to Alexander McQueen is paid in a variety of ways, most thrillingly through a couture outfit with a wickedly fluttery core. The frocks don’t distract from a script that wants to understand decadence, corruption, pent-up sexual longing and the rage of the underdog – the frocks tell the story.

 (Laurie Sparham)
(Laurie Sparham)

Taken as a whole, Cruella is a perfect riposte to film fans who think every epic needs guns and gangsters. An extended tracking shot, that apparently takes us through the bowels of legendary department store Liberty, is as kinetic as anything in Goodfellas.

Will children be mystified by such goings on? Maybe, but two adorable dogs – one of them a tiny and agile pup called Winks – should keep them on board. That and the reassuring presence of Anita, who actually looks the same age as her former pal (I could never understand why, in the hilarious 1961 cartoon, 50-fags-a-day Cruella seemed twice as old as Anita. Smoking ages you, sure, but still).

 (AP)
(AP)

Young’uns will also lap up the splendid banter between Horace and Jasper, delivered with finesse by Hauser and Fry. With his large appetite, Horace comes close to being the butt of some obvious jokes, yet he ends up delivering some of the smartest and sweetest lines. Estella tells her two friends that she views them as her family. “She’s pulling the family card!” yelps wise Horace. Cruella the movie is all about family.

Despite the 12A certificate, Cruella’s eyes take us to some very dark places. And though her signature hair-do might suggest otherwise, her world view is anything but black and white. Suffice to say, this devil does not wear fur and having sympathy for her feels like the start of something beautiful.

In cinemas and on Disney+ premier access

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