Dr. Donna Copeland’s
GUGU MBATHA-RAW TOM WILKINSON EMILY WATSON TOM FELTON
MIRANDA RICHARDSON SARAH GADON MATTHEW GOODE SAM REID
Fox Searchlight hit a home run last year, with 12 Years a Slave taking home the best picture trophy. This year they go back even farther in history, to 1796, with another true story that is far less violent but equally as stirring. Belle follows one of the most notable families in London during the time as they accept and set new standards for raising a mulatto child in their family. As she matures she becomes alarmingly aware of the double standards within her own family. There is no denying that Fox Searchlight once again feels like they have a crowd pleaser on their hands; with the applause during and after the film, Belle is poised to make quite a splash this summer, providing a welcome distraction from all the superheroes and special effects.
Captain Sir John Lindsay (Goode) brings his mulatto child, conceived out of wedlock, to his parents home in London expecting them to abide by the law and raise her up in the birthright she is guaranteed. Following the death of Sir Lindsay in battle, Belle (Mbatha-Raw) is to receive a substantial inheritance from her father. Belle and her cousin Elizabeth (Gadon) have grown up together as sisters, and now when they are both about to be out in society looking for husbands, it’s the exotic Belle and her inheritance that is turning heads instead of the typical blond Englishwoman. Their Pa-Pa, Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson) has before him a defining case that will change the way Britain values the lives of slaves, with Belle being the biggest influence on his decision.
Television actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw has stood by this project’s development for years, and there is no denying that Fox hopes Raw can claim the type of stardom Nyongo earned with 12 Years. She certainly carries the entire film with her beauty and poise, but it’s the writing that really allows her to soak up the screen's juiciest moments. She is certainly in great company, with Oscar nominee Wilkinson (In the Bedroom, Batman Begins), who also gives quite a good performance and is afforded more screen time than he has gotten recently with other projects. Watson and Richardson are also quite good, but it’s newcomer Sam Reid who deserves the remaining praise.
Belle flips conventional wisdom that we associate with films like Emma and Pride & Prejudice or Sense & Sensibility by having Belle as the female with the looks, inheritance and the men seeking her to gain status in the world, albeit with controversy due to the color of her skin. The production does borrow a bit too heavily from Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride & Prejudice at times; never more so than the scene of marriage proposal in the Mansfield home. Belle focuses more on the interior and production design than the vast outdoors in Wright’s film. While the film never feels groundbreaking, and the performance probably won’t be remembered at the end of the year, it’s still very much a crowd pleaser with a new spin on a classic tale.
Final Thought – Flips conventional wisdom on a classic tale.
By: Dustin Chase
Belle has all the components of a fine production: relevance of the topic; filming, direction, and production; acting; and music. It starts out with a white gentleman (Matthew Goode) approaching a little black girl (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who has just arrived on a ship, reassuring her that he will not harm her. Then he lets her know her name is Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, and goes on to promise her a wonderful life where she will have all kinds of opportunities. She stares rather blankly at him with her wild hair and plain dress, as if she is used to promises that are not kept. He takes her to a British mansion, introduces her to his dismayed aunt and uncle, who are just about to say no, but some kind of honor inside them keeps them from it. He has told them that her mother is dead, and as an admiral in the British Navy, he cannot take her with him; but he has failed to inform them that her mother was black. He is out the door in no time, leaving for an assignment.
The uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), is Lord Chief Justice, and is clearly reluctant, but his wife (Emily Watson), as usual, tempers his objections with reason and compassion. Anyway, he realizes their daughter Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) needs a companion because they live in the country, so they accept Dido as one of their own in every respect—until she reaches adolescence and it’s time to start searching for husbands.
A strong point of this film is its account of the treatment of people of color in that time and place. For example, Dido dines with the family on all occasions, except when there is company and a formal dinner. Nor will she “come out” to society as Elizabeth will, and she is to have no hope for a husband to support her. The parents have virtually adopted Dido (she calls them father and mother, and they clearly love her), but they feel they have to be concerned about social propriety, which proscribes acceptance of blacks into certain formalities.
Another topical theme of the film is that as Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield is to give the legal opinion about a ship carrying slaves from Africa dumping many of them over board, ostensibly to preserve those who could survive the rest of the journey. They have been insured, and if the ship has a valid reason for what they did, they will be recompensed for what they have lost. It is said that if Mansfield takes the side of those claiming that insuring lives and dumping them when they are sick is illegal, it will have a devastating effect on the practice of slavery, and hence the economy of the country. A young man whom Mansfield took under his tutelage is of the latter opinion, but he is summarily fired when, at her insistence, he informs Dido about the case.
Still another theme of the film—not so topical, but interesting—is the rather bald search for husbands for the daughters of gentlemen. If they are bringing a dowry, it is not difficult, but if they cannot—which for various reasons they might not—the search becomes rather desperate.
This is an informative period film of substance that I think should be seen by everyone who loves the movies. It is based on a true story of the only black woman of the time in England who was an aristocrat.