So, after suffering through ‘Blended’ (alright, not truly suffering, but you get my drift) my wife decided that maybe she should give MY movie choice a try and so the other night (no, not last night, which belonged to a very different movie which I’ll be reviewing later) we sat down to watch ‘Belle’. I didn’t really know a whole lot about this other than the fact that my good friend Ruth had talked this up on her blog when it first opened and she peaked my interest.
Tom Wilkinson having a prominent part was also a HUGE selling point.
For me, ‘Belle’ plays out pretty much like what would have happened had Jane Austen penned ‘Amistad’. A social commentary on race relations, class designations, love, ideals and family, ‘Belle’ covers a lot of bases in a rather cohesive and eloquent manner that made for a beautifully composed film, one that felt honest and articulate.
Many films in this genre run the risk of feeling stuffy and dull, but ‘Belle’ succeeds in avoiding that thanks to a compelling story that has enough bite to keep us more than involved. The story, a true one at that, tells the story of a young woman, the mixed race child of a Royal Navy Admiral, who is raised by her uncle in 18th century England. Her skin color is in direct contradiction with her social status, leaving her almost completely lost in the world. Her uncle, Lord Mansfield, is the Lord Chief Justice and a respected member of society, an aristocrat with wealth and stature. Because of this, and the inheritance received by her late father, Belle is set for life, materially, but because of her mother’s origins and the skin color she possesses, Belle is held at a distance, unable to fully embrace her lineage. When a slave ship’s inhumane actions come under the scrutiny of the courts, and into the judgment of her uncle, Belle sees an opportunity for her place in the world to be solidified, clarified and possibly even redeemed.
‘Belle’ delicately handles many themes, from the social relevance of racism and prejudice to the swirling affections of love, and manages to infuse life into both of Belle’s suitors, as well as to the people surrounding her life. From country boy Davinier’s admirable ideals to young Oliver’s search for his own social status to his brother James’s distasteful ignorance to her cousin Elizabeth’s worry and desperation to her uncle’s conflicted paternal graces, everyone feels like a real person. Even Lady Mary Murray, who really serves no purpose but to break up the tension and dramatics with a funny line reading, is extremely effective.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is astonishingly effective here, evoking such tremendous depth within her portrayal of Belle, a beautiful soul trapped in a world unable (or unwilling) to wholly accept her. The way she holds herself, fully aware of the place she should have, contradicts the way she sees herself in the mirror, lost and ashamed, and the way that Gugu relays these contradictions is stunning to watch. There is a moment, when smitten at the words of a would-be suitor, where her ears hear the shock of ignorance and her eyes well with tears she refuses to shed and she quickly changes the subject, calling attention to a sound she hears in the distance. That scene is everything because it is within that moment that we see just how amerced in this character Gugu truly is.
‘Belle’ tells a very important story, one of intolerance, change and ultimate acceptance, and the way that it is woven is beautifully compelling and soulful.
A uniformly great ensemble, a beautiful score, an intriguing story and some stunning visuals make for a really surprising entry into the genre that left me completely satisfied.
I give the film an A-. I wish that Oscar would at least consider this in the technical places, for the score and the costumes are tremendous, but I fear that the early release date and limited circulation have pretty much doomed this from even being considered for a nomination. Still, it's most deserving. Hopefully Wilkinson can get some traction for this coupled with his upcoming performance in 'Selma'. It would be great to see him finally rewarded for always being awesome.