Director: Amma Asante
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, James Norton, Tom Felton
Written by: Misan Sagay
Running Time: 104 mins
Release date: 13th June 2014
It wasn’t long before the success of 12 Years A Slave would start rubbing off on other films. Six months after Steve McQueen’s epic arrived, we now have Belle, another based on true events tale involving slavery. Except this film is for those who couldn’t handle the brutality of the Oscar winner, instead preferring a lighter, more gentle approach.
1762 and Dido Elizabeth Belle, a young, motherless girl, is taken by her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay, to be cared for by his father, the Lord High Justice Lord Mansfield. Only Belle is of mixed race and the attitudes towards colour was not looked upon highly. They were either slaves or servants and not on gentry. Years later and Belle has been accepted as part of the family, although she isn’t allowed to share the same privileges as her cousin, Elizabeth.
With her father now dead and leaving her a vast amount of money, Belle has become an heiress and the object of affections from Oliver Ashford, the son of a scheming woman who wants her offspring to marry into money. Belle, however, finds herself drawn to John Davinier, a young lawyer fighting for the rights of slaves thrown off a ship in a case being looked over by her uncle, which causes a problem for Belle.
It has to be said that this is a very handsomely made film, which a keen attention to detail from the sets and costumes in order to really feel part of the period, to the dialogue that sounds like it has been lifted from a lesser known Jane Austen novel. Director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay have really done their homework to get the film looking as authentic as possible.
Where the problems lie is in the ambition of the piece. This is a story that has many strands and in order to juggle with the multiple plots, it comes across as haphazard and disjointed. We have Belle’s struggle for identity, never knowing if she is part of the family or an outcast. We have the affections of some and the disdain from others; jealousy from Elizabeth that Belle is so popular; the growing relationship between Belle and Diviner; Lord Mansfield’s struggle to make a decision about the ship; Belle’s involvement in the politics and so on. So many themes and subplots all jostling for position, which means that there seems to be no real impact with any of them.
In the hands of a master film maker, they could probably handle all these subplots and make a coherent film. Ms Asante lets them all run away with themselves and so the dramatic punch that is needed, comes across as melodramatic, not helped by having stirring orchestration every time something dramatic does happen, as if we had missed the point.
There’s also a very uncomfortable and oddly out-of-place moment in which Belle is attacked by Oliver’s younger brother, James, a man who is horrified that his own relative to fall for a black girl, yet it felt, for me, a misstep to include something so shocking when the rest of the film was playing it so safe.
The performances are good value, however. Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson bring a touch of class to the proceedings as Lord Mansfield and his wife, even more so when they have scenes together. Penelope Wilton gives us an older version of her character from Downton Abbey, while Miranda Richardson is fun as Olivier’s devilishly scheming mother.
I did find Sam Reid’s Diviner to be slightly bland, with his deadpan, monotone delivery that is occasionally peppered by an outburst of emotion and Tom Felton, once again gives his Malfoy baddie another airing as James. Typecasting? I think so.
Finally, there’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the title character. A beautiful, captivating actress with hypnotic eyes who manages to hold her own among the heavyweights and even out acts them too. It’s a perfectly poised performance and I look forward to seeing her is more in the future.
This isn’t a terrible film, just a little too ambitious. It plays out fine if you like the safeness of a BBC costume drama and wouldn’t look out-of-place in the scheduling for a wet Sunday afternoon. Dealing with such a strong subject matter, it needed to take more risks and cut back on the various other plots and concentrate on the main story, that of a woman who feels she doesn’t belong in this society. Perfectly fine but, alas, unlike 12 Years, it won’t stay with you after you’ve seen it.