Sunday, June 1, 2014

Belle (***1/2)

Directed by Amma Asante


If we weren't living in a world in which 12 Years a Slave was released just a year ago, Belle's release may have been considered more important. Belle's approach is almost completely inverted from Steve McQueen's film. It sees triumph where 12 Years saw despair. 12 Years a Slave saw a distinguished free man displaced into harrowing slavery. Belle sees a young girl freed from a life in slavery because her father is a white English gentleman. Both are based upon factual accounts. These stories are so totally different (and told in such obviously different ways), and yet the separation between Solomon Northup and Belle's Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay is not as vast as it seems. Circumstances are different, sure, but the fight is still the same. Both movies prove that there are still large parts of history that need to be learned (The Atlantic's recent cover story, 'The Case for Reparations' by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a vast, epically told piece filled with flooring details about America's twisted history with the African people). The story of Dido Lindsay is not as bruising as Northup's but, I'd argue, it's just as important. And how quaint that cinema would tell their stories so soon after one another.

Dido is played by the English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who herself is the daughter of mixed parents (her mother is a white English woman, her father is a black South African man). She is a beautiful woman, like Halle Berry mixed with Kerry Washington. She's bounced around in movies and television for close to a decade, but Belle is easily the first legitimate starring role that she's had. The part is strong, but inherently subdued. Like Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years, it's up to Mbatha-Raw to bring the firepower within the performance because her actions are rarely explosive. It's a performance that would make her a star if the world were a fair place and enough people saw the movie. Hopefully this is the case. Dido Lindsay is the daughter of a black slave woman (who's not seen). When her father, Navy Captain John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) learns of the death of Dido's mother, he decides to take her out of her impoverished life and into a life of white privilege; "A life you were born to," he tells her. His Navy duties require him to depart, and so he leaves Dido with his esteemed uncle William Murray, Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson).

Lord Mansfield and his wife are not only turned off by Dido's illegitimacy, but her dark skin will create obvious ripples through the social mores of eighteenth century England. Mansfield takes Dido in after much pleading from his nephew, and also to give a companion to his other illegitimate niece, Elizabeth, and the two girls are raised in aristocratic fashion despite their standing. As they grow into young women, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and Dido are still great friends, used to the unorthodox nature of their family structure. Mansfield, the Chief Justice of England, treats both girls as if they were his own daughters, and yet, when guests are over for dinner, Dido cannot join. Instead, she is limited to the parlor where she is exposed to guests once the meal is over. Dido barely second-guesses this way of life until their home is visited by a young man seeking tutelage from Mansfield to help with his law career. The young man is John Davinier (Sam Reid), a proud young man who is instantly taken with Belle's beauty. It is Davinier who introduces Belle to the concept of challenging the way that she is treated, not only by her loving but strict family, but by a society that still employs slavery and sees blacks as less than human.

Belle's awakening comes at a tricky time. Lady Mansfield is trying desperately to match the disgraced Elizabeth with a willing husband. A healthy suitor comes in the form of James Ashford (Tom Felton), an entitled but wealthy young man who comes equipped with a silver-tongued mother (Miranda Richardson) who's unafraid to comment on Dido's startling presence in the Mansfield home. On top of that, Lord Mansfield is presiding over a case in which his decision could effect the institution of slavery in England going forward. A slave ship, low on water, decided to throw their entire slave cargo off of the boat, letting them all drown to ensure the safety of everyone else on the ship - and now they'd like to be paid for their "lost cargo" by their insurance company. Mansfield is being charged with interpreting whether or not the ship did what they needed to do protect themselves, or whether they murdered innocent slaves to collect an insurance pay-off. The details make it obvious, and Davinier is adamant to Mansfield, and then to Dido, about how ghastly not only this event is, but the entire slavery institution. But England's economy, based so heavily on slavery, puts Mansfield in a tough spot, as many of his peers remind him of.

How Belle and it's director, Amma Asante, balance the multiple storylines throughout is one of the movie's biggest strengths. The film's trailer made it seem like a frilly costume drama about Civil Rights. But the film is about so much more than the rights of blacks. It's dissection of the marriage institution of the time, and it's ridiculous dependence on affluence and esteem, is nearly just as fascinating - basically, all of the things that Jane Austin had us laughing about in Pride & Prejudice is put underneath a scrutinizing magnifying glass here. It also about the evolution of Lord Mansfield, not a prejudiced man, but one shackled by the obligations of a society which has placed him in one of the country's most important positions. Most of all, this is about the coming of age of Dido, and her maturity as a woman of not only purpose but of presence. She fights not only the limits of her race, but also of her gender when she finds herself trying to fight off the advances of James Ashford's brother, Oliver (James Norton). The script, by Misan Sagay, doesn't tell the story from a pulpit, but instead gently blends the multiple strands of her screenplay into a message that is much more than just "slavery is wrong" - and even has the gaul to point out that there is not much difference between the history of Civil Rights and Women's Rights.

Belle goes exactly where you expect it to. Asante and Sagay are not interested in beating their audience into submission like McQueen, and perhaps it's that cinematic tidiness that keeps it from truly reaching the greatness of 12 Years a Slave. For all her skill with the cast of actors - Mbatha-Raw, Wilkinson, Watson and Reid are all fantastic here - Asante doesn't seem to put a whole lot interest in visual flair throughout the film, which is compounded by an odd editing style which overuses the jump cut in an attempt to create imbalance when we were totally fine standing up straight. That being said, Asante recognizes the true strength behind the script and puts her actors front and center. This is a movie meant to move audiences with a real feel-good interpretation about the nature of humanity. If that sentiment feels tired, take closure in the fact that Belle doesn't try to beat it into your skull. The film is an easy pill to swallow, but it's also one of the most enjoyable things you can see in a theater right now.

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