‘Belle’ Review

Published 2 months ago by

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Belle takes place in 18th century England, where young Dido Elizabeth Belle – the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of the Royal Navy Captain, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) – is left by her father in the care of his relatives: the Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) and Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) who, by and large, raise Dido as they would their own daughter, along with her cousin, Elizabeth. However, despite having most of the privileges afforded to the aristocracy, Dido is always treated as something of an outsider due to her racial heritage.

As young women, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) are groomed to find eligible suitors that they might be wed to – though, the social pressures of the setting make this all the more difficult for Dido, despite her being the sole inheritor of her father’s sizable fortune. Meanwhile, Lord Mansfield is deliberating on a slavery case (Gregson v. Gilbert) that could have immense ramifications for the English slave trade. This leads to Dido crossing paths with the young activist and aspiring lawyer, John Davinier (Sam Reid) – a man who not only stirs Dido’s passions, but also awakens her own social consciousness.

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid in ‘Belle’

Belle was inspired by the 1779 painting of the real Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray, as well as the social/legal issues surrounding the case of the Zong massacre (which helped bring about the end of slavery in England). The film unfolds as a blend of historical romance genre (read: melodrama based on class tension, forbidden love, etc.) with a narrative that examines the legal and economic realities of the slave trade – which is juxtaposed with a look at the social institution of marriage in the 18th century. If Downton Abbey and Amistad were to have a baby together, it might resemble Belle, so to speak

The final result is a mold-breaking film that offers all the appeal of a handsome period drama, combined with a different, but insightful, perspective on the subject of race-based social inequality. It’s not a flawless union, for sure, though director Amma Asante (A Way of Life) and screenwriter Misan Sagay (Their Eyes Were Watching God) are mostly successful with their amalgamation. Part of that success can be attributed to the cast, led by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (recently seen on the Undercovers and Touch TV series); with her soulful eyes and expressive mannerisms, Raw brings the eponymous Belle to life – making her journey to emotional and political-awareness an engaging one.

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sarah Gadon in ‘Belle’

Asante and director of photography Ben Smithard (My Week with Marilyn) cleverly light and frame much of Belle as if it were a collection of portraits, enhancing the symbolism of a recurring motif in the film – portraits depicting the aristocracy. It also makes for a lovely film to look at, when combined with refined production design by Simon Bowles (Hyde Park on Hudson) and richly-colorful costumes by Anushia Nieradzik (Hunger). The plot also moves along at a steady and surprisingly brisk pace, courtesy of editors Victoria Boydell (Blood) and Pia Di Ciaula (Tyrannosaur) – though, the downside of that is Belle doesn’t spend quite as much time developing a sense of atmosphere, nor the characters or themes, as might’ve been desirable.

As mentioned before, though, the strong performances in Belle help to fill in the gaps in the storytelling, led by the promising leading turn from Raw – whose vulnerability and intensity is matched through the performance by Sam Reid (The Railway Man), as well as by the character he plays. The film also boasts solid work by reliable character actors Emily Watson (War Horse) and Tom Wilkinson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), as well as Sarah Gadon (A Dangerous Method) and Miranda Richardson (Parade’s End) – the latter playing Lady Ashford, the woman whose sons are potential suitors for Dido and Elizabeth.

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James Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in ‘Belle’

James Norton (Rush) as Oliver Ashford – a man whose interest in Dido is based mostly on her looks – brings a bit more depth and charm to his somewhat thinly-sketched character; unfortunately, Tom Felton as his brother, James, basically plays a real-world version of his Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter – which, in Belle, feels a bit too hammy and out of place. Meanwhile, Penelope Wilton (a Downton Abbey alum, appropriately) helps to emotionally ground Dido and Elizabeth’s strict caretaker, Lady Mary Murray – and last, but not least, Matthew Goode makes the most of his brief screen time, as Dido’s kindly biological father.

Asante’s direction, combined with fine work from her cast and collaborators behind the camera, helps to temper the melodramatic tendencies of Belle. This allows for the film to provide a solid viewing experience – one that varies from restrained to being more impassioned, when appropriate. In fairness, Belle might be a little too polite, for those who prefer their period dramas to be more souped up; at the same time, though, it has an intelligence that should make it more appealing to those moviegoers who aren’t usually so keen on this sort of corset period drama.

TRAILER

Belle runs 104 minutes long and is Rated PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images. Now playing in the U.S. in a limited theatrical release.

Our Rating:

3.5 out of 5
(Very Good)

TAGS: belle

10 Comments

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  1. This looked interesting, so I’m glad to see it received high marks.

  2. I didn’t know this was coming out, I’m definitely going to go see it.

  3. I’m hoping to see this. Fortunately, it is playing near me — I get so frustrated with my lack of access to many of the more specialized/small-release films these days.

    • I did see it, and quite liked it. It is fairly Jane Austen-y in style, and definitely is not any sort of brutally realistic look at things, but it’s very well done for what it is, and especially very well-acted. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a great lead.

  4. I heard this being described as look on race relations the way Jane Austen would have done which made me interested. Hopefully I am able to see this soon.

  5. Spot on review. despite the Malfoy caricature the film is really beautiful.

    I saw it three times in a week. I would gladly watch it again.

  6. Boring…wake me up when it’s over

  7. Yes I agree that it is Downton Abbey flavored with Amistad.

    If you like Downton Abbey then you’ll love this movie.

    I saw Amistad a long time ago, but the recalled the imagery from that film which vividly gives context to the Zong case.

    One problem is that the movie is too neatly packaged, and is only “inspired” by true historical facts. I don’t know how much is true and how much is creative fiction to make a good story.

    I wish that more was done with the imagery of historical portrait painting and the magic of the silver screen. I think that more could be done with this theme of portrait imagery.

    I also wish that more was done with the legal arguments in the Zong case. For example, what was going on with the Quakers, the traders, and the activist John Divinier? Or maybe that would be beyond the scope of this tidy film.

  8. Belle was a very well cast film, It was well thought out.

    Watching it in a big cinema was fun only a small group was in there it was quiet and no kids. I was surprised to learn that this included my favourite thing ‘Law’ once
    again we were in for a decent ride My mum, Gran and me all loved it.

    Tear jerking lovely film

  9. Belle was a very well cast film, It was well thought out.

    Watching it in a big cinema was fun only a small group was in there it was quiet and no kids. I was surprised to learn that this included my favourite thing ‘Law’ once
    again we were in for a decent ride My mum, Gran and me all loved it.

    Tear jerking lovely film

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