Prequel covering the rebellious early days of one of cinemas most notorious – and notoriously fashionable – villains, the legendary Cruella de Vil.
Cruella may be all fur coat and no knickers but it’s also bouncy fun with bite, as we are blessed with the two best Emmas (sorry Hermione and Baby Spice) fighting it out in a succession of fashion-forward outfits across 1970s London.
Punk is peaking, the Establishment is cowering (until they realise they can commodify the movement and sell it back to them, anyway) as poor, badger-haired young designer Estella (Emma Stone) takes on wealthy fortysomething fashion maven the Baroness (Emma Thompson).
This live action origins story for the black and white haired dognapper is very enjoyable but less than the sum of its parts — though those parts just about make it worth <gulp> 2.5 hours of your time. Despite the noise, barbs and general gorgeousness, it all feels rather empty, devoid even of wickedness.
Bounding along like an enthusiastic labrador puppy which has eaten all your make up and your favourite curtains, it pauses every now and then to grin delightedly at us, before setting off again. Cruella doesn’t reach great heights of storytelling though some of its elements are superb.
The story is basic, but, like one of those grim 1980s catalogue corsets it’s only there on which to hang your most garish tutu. Remember John Wick‘s “all this because of a puppy”? One might also ask a version of this question of Cruella, though not, surprisingly, about a dog. “All this” is because of a terrifically ugly necklace (just because it’s an heirloom doesn’t make it attractive). As with Wick’s puppy the necklace stands for much more, but it is still hideous.
Born Estella (an excellent Tipper Seifert-Cleveland who reminded me — old lady alert — of Charlotte Colman’s 1980s-era Marmalade Atkins), the oddly-haired child is brought up by her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham), though she’s eventually expelled from her school after fighting back when bullied by other pupils. She has one real friend, Anita Darling (played by Florisa Kamara as a child and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as the adult gossip/celebrity reporter), but after the expulsion Estella and her mother move to London, their suitcases piled high on the roof-rack of their tiny car.
En route they stop off at an impressive country house perched on a clifftop; Catherine goes to speak to its chatelaine and ask for help, but is chased by the owner’s dalmatians which push her backwards over the cliff to her death. Estella witnesses all this, then runs away dropping her mother’s heirloom necklace, before escaping on a rubbish truck to London — where she promptly bumps into two young scalliwags living on their wits and their pickpocketing skills, brothers Jasper (the ever-excellent Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser).
Fast forward a decade and Estella is still living in a grubby attic with Jasper and Horace, while trying to make it as a designer. She gets a job cleaning toilets at London department store Liberty while trying to work her way up, but is thwarted by her boss at every turn. (Artistic licence is at play here I think, as she sounds so incredibly posh that in real life she’d have got ahead in the London fashion world with no problem at all.)
Eventually her work — she gets drunk and punks up one of the store window displays — is spotted by the Baroness, a fashion designer who requires a lot in commitment but gives little in the way of praise (“gratitude is for losers,” she tells Estella).
Working for the Baroness, Estella discovers her boss has her mother’s necklace; her attempts to steal it back involving turning up at every fashion event in town as alter ego Cruella, disguised in one incredible outfit after another, stealing the limelight from the Baroness. As she discovers more of the Baroness’s wickedness, and their connection, Estella has to decide whether she will become a version of that which she despises to survive, though ultimately Cruella is about coming to terms with her past rather than forging a villainous future.
She certainly becomes nastier, an initially juddery, unconvincing change. Still, Cruella does not actually make a coat out of her Dalmatian nemeses, even though she might feel justified at doing so. Despite / because of this (depending on in your snowflake rating) the fashions are an absolute high point, both Cruella’s punkish ball dresses and the evil Baroness’s ensembles, which are a true lesson in midlife dressing: structured, elegant and incredibly flattering.
This may be the origins of Cruella but it doesn’t really lead into the Glenn Close version, despite a mid-credits scene that would indicate that (the timeline doesn’t fit unless Close’s Cruella was a 30 year old after a hard paper round). I doubt it’s meant to. This is simply a gorgeously-designed romp that careers through our capital city with the sound turned up to 100. The music is terrific though it does intrude too much — there’s something of a “let’s pause for another cracking tune” feel to it.
Stone is fabulous, as Estella starts trying to build the carapace of Cruella around herself. Turning up at events, standing on a car roof in a ripped-up ballgown, suddenly she’s taken notice of, and suddenly her origins don’t matter — this is the era of punk, accepting all-comers, and only requiring an attitude. The old guard is supposedly swept away, though of course they aren’t really, as we see Cruella beginning her transformation into potentially a Baroness Mini-Me.
Thompson is an icy, imperious baddie, thoroughly enjoying herself without taking the easy route into cartoonish lady villainy. Hers is initially the wickedness of not caring. Utterly without empathy, and very selfish, there’s a distinct lack of interest in her enemies until Cruella awakens a grudging respect in her and then requires elimination. The two Emmas battle each other brilliantly, neither outshining the other.
As for that 2.5 hour running time, it doesn’t exactly fly by but this is a movie where you can luxuriate in its gleeful artistic sensibilities and glorious performances rather than worry about the story much. Sit back, relax, jab a safety pin through your nose and remember that no dogs were injured in the storyline of this film.
Read my article That Cruella ending (and beginning)
Cruella is out in cinemas and available on Disney+ with Premier Access.
Watch the Cruella trailer now: