Release Date: 13th June 2014
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Director: Amma Asante
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sarah Gadon, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Tom Felton, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode
Issues of race seem to be in fashion this season, cinematically at least. Back in 2012, Daniel Day Lewis personally abolished 19th Century slavery in the United States with his Oscar-winning performance in Lincoln. Then in 2013 the ultimate white freedom fighter was removed from office, usurped by Chiwetel Ejiofor and the cast of 12 Years a Slave with a more personal tale of an upper-class black man deceived into slavery. This year sees the turn of the British, with Amma Asante’s Belle: the ‘trump’ tale of a beautiful, black woman rescued from the slums and elevated to the upper echelons of Georgian society, only to discover colour weighs heavier than blood lines.
Starring a myriad of British talent, both old and new – including Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Tom Felton and of course, Gugu Mbatha-Raw – Belle is the epitome of the sort of starched, upper-class period drama to which Jane Austen fans may flock. Unfortunately for its stars, writer Misan Sagay’s script is not a classical masterpiece. Certain scenes drown in over-flowery dialogue where all meaning or emotion is sadly lost, while others suffer from a distinct lack of subtlety as their points are banged repeatedly over your head, perhaps in case you fall asleep during the over-indulgent, grandiloquent rhetoric.
Sagay purportedly based her script around the 18th Century painting of the real Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, in which Dido, the black niece of an Earl, is seen at equal eye level as that of her white cousin, Elizabeth. This was a feat virtually unheard of at a time when most black art subjects where depicted looking up at their white counterparts from their lowly position. Although the majority of the remaining script is fabricated, the art theme endures and provides some the most genuinely emotive scenes of the film, along with those of Dido (Mbatha-Raw) and lover, John Divinier’s budding relationship.
Relative newcomer, Sam Reid delivers a powerful performance as law student, Divinier throughout while Mbatha-Raw relies heavily on her ability to produce a prolonged and meaningful stare. Tom Wilkinson and Penelope Wilton shine (as they are prone to do) as Dido’s uncle, Lord Mansfield and the savvy spinster, Aunt Mary. Harry Potter star Tom Felton continues to be typecast as the snivelling prick of the big screen, only this time as a racist Malfoy, plus a bad wig and minus the wand.
The undoubted stars of the show however, remain uncredited throughout – despite giving the biggest and most mesmeric of performances – are that of Dido and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon)’s heaving bosoms. Florid scripts, blank facial expressions, and legal cases that genuinely contributed toward the abolishment of slavery in Great Britain? All but Forgotten. Perhaps if they spent less time focusing on their cleavages and perfected other aspects, then this would’ve packed more of an emotional punch.
While Belle is not the sweeping British Oscar contender director Asante may have hoped for, it is more than the trailers would make it out to be, despite its shortcomings. So take the plunge and delve into this year’s corseted racial couture, if this is your bag then you most likely will not be disappointed.