**** (out of 5)
May 16, 2014
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as DIDO ELIZABETH BELLE
Tom Wilkinson as WILLIAM MURRAY
Miranda Richardson as LADY ASHFORD
Penelope Wilton as LADY MARY MURRAY
Sam Reid as JOHN DANVINIER
Matthew Goode as CAPTAIN SIR JOHN LINDSAY
Emily Watson as LADY MANSFIELD
Sarah Gadon as LADY ELIZABETH MURRAY
Tom Felton as JAMES ASHFORD
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Directed by: Amma Asante
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
As I often do, I am starting this review with a confession: I’m not a fan of costume dramas.
I know these are wildly popular in some circles. While I don’t mind a good period piece now and then, the idea of high society drama in a rigid atmosphere as we see the struggles of the idle rich really doesn’t appeal to me. Maybe that’s why my favorite version of “Pride and Prejudice” is the “Bridget Jones” version.
Still, I can recognize a well-made costume drama when it comes by, and “Belle” is one of those. It’s prim, and it’s proper. Even the most biting insult from the characters comes with a posh accent and an air of respect. Walking out of the film, I felt like I had been bound in a corset like the one worn by the main character.
But that’s not to say the film wasn’t good. It was. It just isn’t my cup of tea.
Based on a true story, the film follows the young life of Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman of mixed race in the late 1800s in England. Belle is rescued from slavery at a young age by her father Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). Captain Lindsay brings her to his family home where he asks his aunt and uncle (Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson) to raise her while he is on military duty.
As Belle grows up, she remains close to her family. However, she constantly finds herself in the middle of racial prejudices of the day and her proper entitlement of her bloodline. When she and her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) get old enough, they are each on the search for a husband of appropriate status and wealth.
As you might expect from a British costume drama, the acting is quite good. Mbatha-Raw commands the role of Belle and manages to convey her distress and emotion within the great restraints of the role and character. Additionally, Wilkinson and Watson strike a fine balance between worrying about outward appearances as well as following their hearts. Of course, what British film would not be complete without Tom Felton playing a smarmy aristocrat. Poor guy gets cast as nothing else these days.
The main focus of “Belle” is the racial issues of the time, which are played parallel to many racial issues of today. Though not to minimize the real problems that exist in today’s world, the injustices seen in this film are far more vile than they are now. Still, this works as a piece of history as well as a somewhat stuffy drama.
A key subplot involves Wilkinson’s character, who is a judge planning to rule on a landmark case that could change the face of the slave trade at the time. While the film abandons much of the internal drama it lays out for Belle’s character in lieu of this legal case, this is okay by me since by that time I was tiring of the hand-wringing of the idle rich (even if the character was treated unfairly).
In the end, “Belle” manages to be a personal dram for two-thirds of the film and a legal drama not unlike Spielberg’s “Lincoln” for the final third. It has some difficulties juggling these two focal points, but on the whole it’s a well-made film.