Thursday, April 24, 2014

“Belle”– Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the historical drama “Belle”, with Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson.


In 18th century England, an illegitimate mulatto girl is brought into her wealthy white father’s family – but will she be accepted as part of the family or will she forever be considered an outsider?


Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a Captain in Britain’s Royal Navy during the 1700’s, finally meets his illegitimate daughter, Dido Belle, after her mother – a freed slave – passes away. Lindsay brings Dido to his family’s estate and introduces her to his uncle Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson) and Lady Mansfield (Watson), who are immediately taken aback by the fact that the girl is half-black. Despite their skepticism that Dido will fit in, they care for her while Capt. Lindsay returns to his duties at sea. Quickly adapting to her new home and family, Dido soon befriends her cousin Elizabeth, who becomes more like her sister as well as her best friend.

Nearly a decade later, when Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) grow into adulthood, Dido is informed that her father has passed away and as his most immediate heir, will now inherit his fortune. Continuing to live with the family at their estate, Dido struggles to enter the British aristocracy due to her mixed race background. Believing that it will be unlikely she’ll ever find an appropriate suitor, Lord and Lady Mansfield decide that Dido should be charged with taking care of the estate instead of having the false hope of ever marrying and raising her own family. However, when Dido and Elizabeth are introduced to brothers James and Oliver Ashford (Tom Felton and James Norton), everyone is surprised when Oliver shows a definite interest in Dido, despite his brother’s misgivings.

Dido meets John Davinier (Sam Reid), the son of a vicar and an aspiring lawyer when he attempts to work under the tutelage of Lord Mansfield, a judge. Although they have a rough going at the outset, it eventually becomes clear to both that Dido and John are drawn to each other – but despite professing his love for her, the fact that he is not high in the ranking of the British aristocracy causes Dido to doubt whether she should pursue a more serious relationship with him. When Oliver subsequently proposes to Dido, she initially accepts, but begins to question whether or not she should go through with it when she is confronted by James’ racism. Will Dido be able to overlook James’ objections to her being brought into his family or will John prove to her that he is more deserving of her love than Oliver?


While “Belle” may insist that it’s based on a true story, the way in which it has been told in the movie is a bit too tidy to be considered an actual account of a significant incident in a person’s true life. That said, as a film it seems to work on its own merits – but mainly if you forget about its supposed historical derivation. As strange as it may sound, the story this motion picture tells will almost feel more real if you temporarily forget that it is based on a person who really existed centuries ago. Although “Belle” ostensibly is about racism, it is also – and perhaps more so – about socioeconomic class struggle, regardless of race; what differentiates it, of course, is that it is told within the framework of 18th century British aristocracy.

As both a period piece and costume drama, “Belle” may certainly be enjoyed on those levels, independent of the story. The screenplay occasionally gets in its own way, making certain relationships and events a bit unclear; contributing to this potential confusion is the way that it has been directed – because some of characters may sometimes look a little too similar to each other, recalling who they are can be a bit of a chore at times, taxing the memory of the audience in certain scenes. Although I enjoyed “Belle” somewhat more than I anticipated, I would have to give it a borderline recommendation, despite its earnest attempts.

Following the screening, our instructor provided the class with some interesting information from the production notes supplied by the studio. Apparently, while a number of the characters in “Belle” actually existed during the stated time period, many of the incidents portrayed in this drama did not; as a result, this movie might arguably fall into the category of “historical fiction” – it presents verisimilitude in the absence of historically accurate facts. The reason why this seems to have been done – again, based on what we were told by the production notes – is that when researching the character of Dido, the screenwriter found precious little in the way of details about her, so the writer fictionalized a good deal of the plot. However, among the things that are historically accurate are the portrait as well as the court case highlighted in its final act.



Belle (2013) on IMDb



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