Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: "Belle"

"Belle" is based on a true story, which is to say there exists the barest thread of historical record about Dido Elizabeth Belle, a black woman raised up in elite 18th century British society. The filmmakers then supplied their own story as to what her life would have been like, and link it to a seminal court case on slavery decided by her uncle, who happened to be the chief justice of the English supreme court.

The result is a splendidly acted, overwrought and largely predictable drama that plays out like Jane Austen with a social justice angle. It's a lot of heaving bosoms and men in tights and white wigs, and talk about maintaining one's "position" in the aristocracy while searching for a suitable marital match.

The twist is that Dido (a scintillating Gugu Mbatha-Raw), as the illegitimate daughter of a naval officer who dallied with a black slave, maintains most of the comforts of nobility while being constantly reminded that she will never be fully embraced by its members.

I admired much about the film while rarely being surprised or emotionally engaged by it. This is one of those movies where you can watch the trailer and obtain a snack-size serving of the entire meal.

Young Dido is given over to her aunt and uncle by her father (Matthew Goode), a naval officer who eventually dies. William Murray (Tom Wilkinson) raised himself up to the topmost heights of the legal profession through grit and idealism, though in his later years he's become more attuned to the rigidity of society.

His wife (Emily Watson) is none too pleased about having a "mulatto" in their house. But they pass her off as the companion of their other, legitimate niece, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). A few odd accommodations are made for the sake of conformity -- Dido is not allowed to share formal meals with her family or guests, for instance -- but she is shown genuine love.

Flash forward to the girls' debutante years, and a great puzzle emerges. Dido is left quite wealthy by her inheritance, but most great families reject her as a marriage match because of her skin shade and illegitimacy. Elizabeth is well-bred and vivacious, but left penniless after own father remarried and moved on with a new family.

Their salvation would appear to arrive in the form of the wealthy and powerful Ashford clan. Matriarch (Miranda Richardson) can't believe "how black" Dido is, but younger son Oliver (James Norton) is smitten -- not to mention, he needs her dowry to help launch his career. Older son James (Tom Felton) pitches woo at Elizabeth, despite his disgust at her cousin -- until, that is, he learns she has no inheritance.

Dido's true passion is for John Davinier (Sam Reid), a commoner who hopes to rise up through the law as Dido's uncle did, and becomes his pupil. But his romantic ideas about changing society crash up against her family's preference for a well-ordered life. Especially as it relates to the case of the slave ship Zong, a spectacular case before the high court in which 142 slaves were drowned at sea to form the basis for an insurance claim.

The cast acquits themselves well, with Wilkinson and Mbatha-Raw the stars of the show. But director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay seem more interested in making a statement than really getting inside Dido's head.

"Belle" wears its sense of importance self-consciously, and turns a novel idea into a tiresome lecture.

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