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Friday, May 16, 2014

Belle Review: Fluff Script Detracts from Otherwise Solid Film

The period piece Belle suffers from a fluff script but looks amazing in the process.

Review by: Matt Cummings

If an image can tell a thousand words, then the painting featured at the end of the period piece Belle could fill a library. And while its story of 18th Century English slavery and social convention looks amazing, it's too self-congratulatory and lacks the emotion of a real winner.

Inspired by the true story, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is an illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), who is raised by Lindsey's great aunt and uncle (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) after Lindsay dies at sea. Belle's half-cousin and confidant Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) instantly bond, yet Belle's status doesn't afford her the same standards. While Elizabeth chases suitors for a dowry, Belle remains isolated and the victim of the rigid social patterns of 18th Century England. Soon, tradition collides with progress as Lord Mansfield must rule on a critical lawsuit involving murdered slaves, giving Belle and her newfound love John Davinier (Sam Reid) the chance to obliterate hundreds of years of slavery in one legal swoop.

On the surface, Belle has everything going for it. There's exceptional performances by Mbatha-Raw, Wilkinson, and Watson. Gadon sparkles in her period dress, and the entire environment is painted in lush strokes by Director Amma Asante. Composer Rachel Portman is a SJF favorite for her apologetically gorgeous scores, and her soaring themes add another layer to Belle, suiting this world admirably. And yet even with all of these pieces, the script by Misan Sagay feels too practiced, too assured that its cast is in command of the climax. There's never any doubt about how Mansfield will rule, as the Zong Masacre of 1781 is a watershed moment in English law history. Belle isn't as much about the case as it is one woman of color being caught up in the events surrounding it. With that knowledge, any sense of amazement or discovery is lost, leaving one to simply be a tacit observer. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's less than what we deserve.

Davinier and fellow suitor Oliver Ashford (James Norton) are fairly standard characters, as are Oliver's mother (Miranda Richardson) and brother (the Harry Potter retread Tom Felton), who play the 18th Century race card like they have a stack in their pockets. The Ashfords are people we're supposed to hate, but they never achieve a level suitable for us to care. Their dismissal at the end of the second act - and Davinier's near-constant prattling about slavery - loses its effectiveness around the same time. We get it: slavery was wrong and the people who committed it were bad people. Rather than ram this down our throats every 5 minutes, Belle should have focused on the story between her and Mansfield, whose conversations represent the best part of the film.

Some might point out that 2012's Lincoln is no different, that history played out the slave issue in much the same way, leaving a circus cast of stars and a country to deal with similar radical change. But unlike Belle, Lincoln's tragic death is the plot point which makes it worth watching. Belle feels like a movie that's more about us looking at a historical topic than about those who lived through it, our cool detachment ready to pounce on the obviously morally confused English elite.

Belle is a well-written and intelligent film, one that never degrades to shock value, and is filled with solid performances in a beautiful period piece setting which the arthouse crowd should gobble up. But its lack of danger or uncertainty never ups the ante, leaving us wanting as the lights come up. Great film can tell a moving story which Belle aspires to do, but it never quite gets there, and that's such a waste.

Belle is rated PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images and has a runtime of 104 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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