Film review: BELLE, from Built For Speed

Given its unusual mix of genres, namely, period film, biopic, race-relations story, political drama and romance, Belle had the potential to be a fascinating film.  Somehow, the whole is less than the sum of the parts as Belle, while handsome and well-made, is not the compelling story it should have been.

Belle is a true story based on the early life of Dido Elisabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a young girl of mixed-race whose white English uncle (Matthew Goode) arranges for her to be raised by his uncle, England’s Chief Justice, William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson).  There, Dido or Belle grows up beside another adopted girl Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon).  Despite her new family’s compassion and relative open-mindedness and an unusual level of social acceptance and mobility afforded by her status as heir to a fortune, Belle has to endure outrageous prejudice often prevented from eating at the same table as her family.  Seeking to marry into a wealthy family as custom demands she accepts the romantic overtures of the poncy Oliver Ashford (James Norton).  Secretly, though, she’s attracted to the caddish left-leaning young lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid). Her influence on him has enormous historical implications due to his involvement in a case that might end slavery.

The film mixes coy Jane Austen-style upper class romance with a critique of the rigid social structure of the time.  In this world race, gender, financial status and family lineage not only determined a person’s station in life and opportunities but also governed every aspect of their behaviour.  The film portrays both the oppressive and demeaning rules by which people were forced to live and the amusing formalities of 18th century protocol, particularly the courtship rituals.

Also, through the court case involving the sinking of the slave ship The Zong, the film explores vital human rights issues.  These fascinating and worthy elements are, however, too often submerged by the syrupy romance between Belle and the dashing Mr Davinier.  Still, this is a visual treat with sumptuous cinematography that captures the manicured beauty of Dido’s protected upper class world.

The film features mostly fine performances.  As Belle, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is eloquent and sympathetic lead.  Tom Wilkinson brings his usual authority to his role of the England’s Chief Justice while Emily Watson convincingly mixes imperiousness and compassion as Lady Mansfield.     Miranda Richardson is appropriately obnoxious as Oliver Ashford’s gold-digging racist mother while Tom Felton (yes Draco Malfoy) seems to be type-cast as a repulsive creep as he plays Oliver’s vile racist brother James who attempts to seduce Elizabeth.

Belle is an attractive at times thought-provoking film about an impressive and important historical figure but unfortunately it opts too often for the soapy approach.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Historical drama.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Amma Asante.

Release date: 8h May 2014

Running time: 104 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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