Saturday, November 15, 2014

Belle — Review

Belle
Directed by Amma Asante
Produced by Damian Jones
Written by Misan Sagay
Cinematography by Ben Smithard
Production Designer Simon Bowles
Costume Designer Anushia Nieradzik
Starring
Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Tom Wilkinson
Miranda Richardson
Penelope Wilton
Sam Reid
Matthew Goode
Emily Watson

Released: May 2, 2014 (USA)

Summary: Set in 18th century England, Dido Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy officer, lives in poverty with her mother in England. After the death of her mother, Dido's father takes her to the family estate, placing her in the care of his uncle, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice and his wife, who live at Kenwood House estate in London. Though the social mores of the time make Dido an outsider, she is educated and raised in the Mansfield house as an aristocrat alongside her cousin Elizabeth. (Portions from Wikipedia)

Review: Belle is a wonderful film at its core a portrait of a woman born into privilege, but can’t exercise her full privilege because of the color of her skin. The film establishes early on that Dido is an heiress, her father having left her a large portion of his estate. She does not need to get married like her cousin Elizabeth because she is already rich. Because of the time of 18th century all women must be married to be “proper” she and her cousin, who is more like her sister, go about the courting rituals even while Dido is slightly discriminated against. I say slightly because her uncle, the man who raised her Lord Mansfield, gives her every privilege he can without upsetting social standards of the era.

As the film opens up with the subtitle: “The year is 1769. Britain is a colonial empire and a slave trading capital” you can tell that they are going to mention slavery. There are NO slaves in the film, yet the story deftly weaves in the story of Gregson v. Gilbert aka the Zong Massacre. Dido is a woman of means so she could have stayed above the fray and lived her entitled life, yet she becomes very interested in the case and especially a young man, John Davinier, involved in the case. Her burgeoning relationship with Davinier is a ripe love story waiting to happen as the portrayers of Belle and Davinier have AMAZING chemistry. Their chemistry makes you root for their love story even though Dido agreed to marry another man. Yes there is a love triangle, but it’s never played for melodrama and the other issues of the story, the case, the social standing of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth, the wonderful sisterhood Dido and Elizabeth share help make it a well rounded story.

The performances in the film are great as well. Tom Wilkinson, who is great in like everything I’ve seen him in, does another great job here as well and this time he gets to do it in his native tongue (He always plays Americans). Sarah Gadon is great as Dido’s cousin Elizabeth, a flustered young woman because she must find a husband to maintain her social standing. Because Dido does not need a husband this causes minor jealousy, but not much. At the core they are sisters and they show that. Sam Reid as John Davinier is terrific and imbues passion and dedication not only to his case, but to Dido. His performance makes you not only believe, but feel his devotedness. 

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid in Belle

This film, as it should be, belongs to the talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw who plays the title character Belle. From the moment you see her as an adult you witness charm, intelligence, at times a fierceness and always effortless grace. Without saying a word you can tell that this is a woman of intelligence and elegance. This was the first Lead role I’ve seen her in and she was magnificent.

Director of Belle Amma Asante
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful directing job by Amma Asante and her design team Production Designer Simon Bowles and Costume Designer Anushia Nieradzik who brought this period piece to life. The aristocrats of Belle never looked or lived better. All the costumes beautiful, all the homes lavish. Under Asante’s direction the film expertly weaved the facets of Dido’s maturation, the love story, as well as the case of the Zong Massacre into a tale that could have easily seemed bloated or lack—direction, yet did not.

I’m not a fan of films from the Romantic Era (Romanticism), but the good buzz about this film featuring a woman of color drew me in and I loved it. Belle is a terrific film.

Commentary: After the good buzz, I saw this film in theaters in June. In November I Live Tweeted my rewatching of the film on the ‘Nother Brother Entertainment Twitter. You can see my initial reaction in June, the tweets and also some of the responses I got via the Storify below.

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