UK Release Date: 13th June 2014
Runtime: 104 minutes
Director: Amma Asante
Writer: Misan Sagay
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sam Reid, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Tom Felton, Penelope Wilton, Matthew Goode, Miranda Richardson
Synopsis: A black woman brought up as part of the British aristocracy in the 18th century struggles to find her rightful place in adulthood.
In the year that Steve McQueen’s blistering 12 Years a Slave won big at the Oscars, the history of racism is a hot topic in filmmaking. Early trailers for Belle pitched it as a fairly generic period drama, with politics firmly behind petticoats. Fortunately, this prickly, confrontational film from Amma Asante is a long way away from Downton Abbey.
Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a black woman, left by her sailor father in the care of Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson, Emily Blunt). She is brought up as a member of the aristocracy and is soon encouraged to find a husband, before being brushed away as a result of her colour. However, when she meets aspiring lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid) and learns of the pivotal Zong case, she takes an interest in the abolitionist movement.
| "I had no idea she’d be so black."
Belle rises above its rather generic period drama trappings to become something genuinely interesting. The script, courtesy of Misan Sagay, is full of elegantly crafted dialogue that combines the usual regal pleasantries with searing aggression and venom.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is wonderfully powerful in the central role. She perfectly conveys the intense struggle of wanting to fit in and follow the rules whilst also being shocked at the way in which people of her colour are treated. Sam Reid is also great as the ideological young counterpoint to Tom Wilkinson’s conflicted lawman, who is able to see the shades of grey in his society.
The only real weak link is Tom Felton, who resorts to the same sort of generic sneering villain he played in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. At least he didn’t have to do an American accent this time.
| "My greatest misfortune would be to marry into a family who would carry me as their shame."
It has a tendency to get bogged down in its romantic subplots, which aren’t exactly Pride & Prejudice, but Belle remains an intriguing film powered by excellent central performances and a script with real teeth.
Pop or Poop?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw should become a real star off the back of Belle. Her performance is raw, intense and believable as she manages to transcend the potentially dull environment into which she is placed.
Amma Asante has conjured up something special and her burgeoning career should definitely be followed with interest. She has a great visual eye and also coaxes solid performances from her central cast members.
It’s no 12 Years a Slave, but it has a really decent bash at it.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.