BelleReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/21/14 21:00:22
(Worth A Look)
I don't watch a lot of costume dramas or read the sort of classic romances that are this film's close relations, so I'm not sure how often they are focused on matters of ritual and plotting and how often they have weightier themes to them. In any case, they tend to be about the collision between what is proper and what is satisfying emotionally, which is certainly the engine driving "Belle". It sometimes fits that description a bit too well, with the filmmakers occasionally having as much time reconciling such issues as their characters.Things start when Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) brings the daughter he sired out of wedlock to live with relatives while he continues his career in the Navy, as one did in 1769 - although not when the mother was black, as is the case for young Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay. Still, Lord and Lady Marshfield (Tom Wilkinson & Emily Watson) have another niece in their care about Dido's age who could use a playmate, and it doesn't take long for their reservations to fade when they discover that she is a bright and charming girl. Even with that being the case, things have grown complicated when a decade or so has passed - Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is left out of formal occasions, and though she has received a fine inheritance, only Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) is being formally introduced to society. Dido has caught the eye of John Davinier (Sam Reid), the local vicar's son, who is studying law under Lord Marshfield. Davinier also has strong feelings about a case Marshfield is adjudicating, in which a slave ship threw its "cargo" overboard and sought to make an insurance claim.
The basic idea behind the film is simple-yet-interesting enough - take a genre and environment that has a certain sort of homogeneity so deeply ingrained that calling it an assumption rather understates the case and throw in an ethnic wild card - that it would be an interesting exercise even without the assurance in the opening titles that it was based on a true story. Where it sometimes runs into trouble is in how thoroughly it immerses itself in its setting from the start; viewers who need a refresher course in the rules and rituals of society in this time may find themselves a bit at sea, especially since arrangements at the manor are rather dependent on absent character. Once they are caught up, though, the film delivers on its promises, with plenty of sisterly affection, men who are kind and handsome but poor, matches that could advance relationships between families and those that could gain the dowryless Elizabeth security, stern but soft-hearted spinsters and ambitious matriarchs; how each of them reacts to Dido's darker skin and how she navigates situations as a result just heightens the pleasures of the genre.
Against this background, the "insurance fraud" case plays out, and it is at times an awkward fit - at times, it seems as though the characters are obligated to bring it up to remind the audience that Lord Marshfield has not yet rendered a decision even though not much is actually happening in that part of the story, and it's also problematic in how the film frames it as a moral question even though the actual case will ultimately be decided on relatively mundane, practical points. That sort of thing is undoubtedly often the first step in changing society and the law, but it can seem like a half-measure when telling a story. Still, it does serve other purposes in the story: It gives Dido and John Davinier (John Reid) something of substance to talk about as they draw closer, while also reminding the audience that at the time, Dido would not simply be considered unusual at first glance.
That first glance will linger, and not just because Gugu Mbatha-Raw can certainly justify the "Belle" portion of her character's name. Dido is probably supposed to be somewhat younger than Mbatha-Raw can quite pass for (the film took a long time to get into production, but modern audiences probably don't really want to see girls of 16 or 17 husband-hunting anyway), but she does a fine job of presenting the girl starting to tap into her potential: It never takes very long for the knowledge of unfair practicalities to add some texture to the sheltered and inexperienced innocence that she shares with Sarah Gadon's "Betts", for instance, and there's an apt nervousness as she starts to asset herself. It's like she's not practiced in righteously complaining and thus has legitimate grievances almost sound like petulance, a nifty detail to go with the more expected touches.
Belle is not solely Mbatha-Raw's show, and this sort of film benefits greatly from having the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, and Miranda Richardson play lord/lady-of-the-manor types, along with James Norton and Tom Felton as brothers eying Dido & Elizabeth. Sarah Gadon makes a good enough impression for the audience to cringe when it looks like she may say something hurtful, and Sam Reid owns how his character is an eighteenth-century dream man. Director Amma Asante (who, word is, contributed to the script as much as credited writer Misan Sagay) balances the restrained atmosphere and moral steadfastness that most of the audience desire from her movie, and if she sometimes hurries past the details early on, she seldom gets bogged down.This movie has flaws, but liking and caring about the title character can count for a lot in this sort of movie, and both Asante and Mbatha-Raw are both adept at pulling the audience in where it counts. I wanted to see more of Dido from the very start, and that translates quite directly to enjoying "Belle" as the film obliges.
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