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I Forgot About "Belle" But The Story Shouldn't Be Forgotten!

A Brief Housekeeping Prologue: Behold the troubles of rapid festival-blogging and ill fated attempts to "save some for later" and plan ahead. What you're about to read are my first impressions of Belle, a costume drama which opened in theaters on May 2nd when I intended a fine tuned version of this review to go up. I first wrote this back in September at TIFF and when I learned the film was not yet "locked" as to its final cut and would open in May, I saved it, fully intending to revisit the film, in case further editing sharpened its compelling premise or performances. While searching for Godzilla showtimes just now (priorities) I've realized  that it's been in theaters for two weeks and I never published this or saw the film again! (In most professional blogger ways I vastly prefer Squarespace, where the site has been housed since January 2011, to Blogspot but scheduling posts for weeks ahead in the future -- a super handy function - is a trickier and less user-friendly feature here.)

I never did revisit the film so if you've seen it I'd love to hear your opinion of the final product... 

Beautiful British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the star of Belle, a costume drama about the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay directed by Amma Assante. Dido's life story is fascinating and ripe for cinematic exploration. She was the illegitimate biracial child of a British Naval Officer (Matthew Goode, giving Goodeian gorgeous righteousness in a cameo) who claimed her as his own despite the scandal he knew it would cause.

He demanded that she be brought up in England at his home much to the surprise and resistance of his stuffy family (Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton and Emily Watson giving extremely Wilkinsonian, Wiltonesque and Watsonlike turns). Belle's life predicament stems from her skin color but is more than skin deep... it's existential. One obvious but psychologically upsetting scene has her confronting her beautiful dark skin in the mirror and momentarily attempting to rub it away. Though Dido is blessed with wealth and privilege she never fully belongs to the high society circles she travels in, and is not even allowed to dine with her family. Her 'coming out' into society, expected of women her age for courting purposes, is only considered by the family when they realize that her same-aged sister-cousin (Sarah Gadon not giving a very Gadonish performance) needs a companion. Meanwhile the debate over slavery reaches a fever pitch thanks to a gruesome court case her grandpa (that'd be Wilkinson) is judging about drowned Africans. 

forbidden love! Gugu & Sam Reid look great together

Belle isn't particularly accomplished as cinema goes, marred as it is by modern anachronisms in dialogue and behavior, and the unmistakable sense that it'd be miles better as a more fleshed out television miniseries. The acting, too, is highly uneven. Gugu has a few wonderful moments but spends too much (i.e. most) of the running time in wide-eyed confused victim mode. But the largest problem is that much of Belle makes no damn sense. Consider, if you will, that though the film begins with Belle as a child, we skip ahead to her adult yearsone or two scenes later but every single cast member (including Belle herself) reacts to the discomfort and unfairness of her peculiar situation like they've never considered any of the implications before; Every awkward interaction or racist affront is a virginal shock! Were they all cryogenically frozen until Belle was old enough to be dowried off to the highest bidder and the actress was old enough to carry both a romantic drama and a civil rights epic?

That said it's an easy film to watch, emotionally accessible and earnest of heart, which is just what I needed that morning at the festival and sometimes being the right movie at the right time on the right day can endear you to weary eyes... especially if you hand them some eye drops*. A- Story / C- Execution

*That's code for tears, which I did shed.

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Reader Comments (6)

The one thing I took away was just how much I adored Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Hoping to see great things from her in the future.

May 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKai Lor

I loved it. I am a middle aged female so right in the demographic that enjoys a costume drama of 18th century manners. Belle has more substance and wider historical view than most costume dramas.

May 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commentervaus

BELLE is unfortunately on my "Worst of 2014" list. I love period dramas, but this is terribly boring, too earnest + not subtle enough in it's preaching (it's as if Paul Haggis directed and wrote it), and yes, Nathaniel, I agree it makes no sense. Tom Wilkinson has played this role many times and he just strolls through the film, but even worse..... after this and the horrible BOOK THIEF, I am beginning to despair not only at the movies poor Emily Watson is reduced to taking, but also the one-dimensional shrill characters she is given within those movies.

May 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTravis C

I wish Watson could land a role worthy of her considerable talent (breaking
the waves; Hillary & Jackie).

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I just came from seeing it in theaters... again. I for one thought it was very accomplished. I thought it came across as a wonderfully layered story of racial attitudes, women's rights, social status, and paternal relationships. Yes, in some ways it is very earnest and not so subtle, but I think somethings its necessary for race themed, civil rights movies to give the film some weight and conviction.

May 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterShala

I saw Belle this afternoon and agree that it could have been a much better film given the story. It was so heavy-handed, especially with the music. Gugu always looked on the brink of tears..even if it was necessary for the character at the time. Also, the dialogue didn't always ring true..did feel anachronistic and too modern at times..and others so vilely racist..that you wonder, how were people *ACTUALLY* talking?

Finally, I will say that it made me read up more on the Zong case...if only, like you said Nathaniel, this could have been a miniseries! What more we could have learned and discovered about the time...

May 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHannah

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