Release: Friday, May 2, 2014 (limited)
Period dramas are like unicorns when it comes to this blog. In fact, I believe them to be such a rarity that this is the very first time one dared rear its head here. But it only seems fair. After all, I did make a promise to switch things up a little, didn’t I?
Consider this the coming-out party for relative newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw, herself a daughter of a mixed-race couple — her mother, a Caucasian nurse and father, a black South African doctor, separated a year after giving birth. While this is a role which does not quite unearth Oscar-caliber talent just yet, it would be wise to keep an eye out for this native Oxford, England star in the coming years.
At the center of this lavishly decorated period piece is the beautiful and remarkably mature Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral (Matthew Goode) and a black slave, whose arrival on the front steps of the Kenwood House signifies not only a massive turning of the tide for her adoptive aristocratic family but a challenge to the status quo. Set on the precipice of a major (positive) development in the European slave trade circa the 1780s, Amma Asante’s second feature film observes a society fully immersed in ignorance and paralyzed by fear. Everything from the rich tapestry of colors to the exquisite decorations and costume design to the nearly-flawless dialectical affectations transports the audience back in time, no questions asked.
Pleasant surprises are all well and good, but I will admit that I’m slightly panicky right now, because the thought of me actually enjoying a period drama to the level that I just have means that I’m now susceptible to exploring other creations in this vein. Who knows, maybe I’ll even cave and start watching modern television phenomenon Downton Abbey. These are just. . . scary thoughts. I will rue the day I start watching my entertainment with a fancy wig upon my head or a teacup at my side at all times. (Maybe. . . just maybe, I’ll do those things simply for kicks.)
Yes, this is me admitting in no uncertain terms I am not the target audience for a movie such as this.
And yet, Belle’s struggle captivated. Her evolution from outsider-looking-in to active participant in her father’s (read: England’s) politics of the day is well-handled, inspirational, even if the PG rating does on more than one occasion feel like a restriction. Her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (a predictably excellent Tom Wilkinson) holds the position of Lord Chief Justice of England, considered essentially second in power only to the King himself. As such, Lord Mansfield has certain decisions to make.
His most pressing concern involves a ship en route back to England from the Caribbean, whose crew is reported to have disposed of its slave ‘cargo’ because they were diseased and the remaining members on the ship were perilously close to running out of clean drinking water. A legal loophole would theoretically allow the tradesmen to claim insurance on the loss of items forfeited, but given new evidence — which here is dramatized as the collaborative effort of Dido and would-be husband, John Davinier (Sam Reid), a passionate young lawyer deemed too low for Dido’s standards by “papa” — Lord Mansfield rules in favor of the insurers in a landmark decision that effectively puts an end to the British slave trading.
Punctuated by the odd moment or two of confrontation, Belle manages to keep things personal yet maintain a distance so as to indeed encompass a broader audience. One is left wondering after awhile if the harsh, unflinching lacerations of Steve McQueen’s camerawork and brutally realistic overtones are more effective at conveying the depths of despair individuals felt at this time.
Though McQueen’s film made the lawlessness of institutionalized slavery crystal clear to viewers brave enough to endure his work, Asante’s approach lulls one into a false sense of security by portraying the opposite end of the spectrum — the elite and privileged — and while its not as viscerally disturbing, the moral corruption is no less painful. Lingering expressions of confusion and hopelessness worn on Mbatha-Raw’s face often do enough so that comparisons to more brutal films aren’t necessarily unwarranted but merely inevitable. There lurks an air of danger and desperation perpetual, and though we’re not quite satisfied with how quickly we manage to outrun it, we do feel a modicum of escapism and inspiration come this time.
Based on a true story, Belle is propelled by a solid cast registering compelling performances on all sorts of levels — relatively low-profile Brits James Norton and Tom Felton are gleefully vile as the profusely snobbish Ashford brothers, the respective would-be suitors for Belle and her stepsister, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) if society is going to have its way with them, and Emily Watson offers firm support as Lady Mansfield, the first to offer Dido a place in her home. While proceedings don’t particularly scream renovation of the costume drama get-up, it at least adds sufficient evidence of why these films offer great escapism as well as an education.
Recommendation: If smitten by the rich detail of period drama, I can see no reason you would not want to check out the exquisite surface beauty of Belle. Beyond that there is a lot of material to sink teeth into, but the fact remains this sort of story is beginning to show its age. There is virtually no event that doesn’t come with a heaping helping of foreshadowing and predictability. That said, that’s not enough of a reason to not recommend this well-acted piece of British history.
Running Time: 104 mins.
Quoted: “My greatest misfortune, would be to marry into a family that would carry me as their shame.”
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