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Archive for April, 2015

Belle (UK, 2013)

My rating: +1 (Enjoyed it)
Bechdel Test:
3 out of 3passes easily
DirectorAmma Asante
CastGugu Mbatha-RawSarah Gadon, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, James Norton, Tom Felton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton
Plot: Set in the 18th century and based on a true story. A Royal Navy Admiral has an illegitimate daughter with a black woman and brings the little girl back to England, where she is raised by her aunt and uncle.

About the film

Belle is basically one of those quality period dramas that regularly come out of the UK, but with a difference. It’s quite unusual to see anybody who isn’t white in a period drama and in the rare instances anybody of different racial heritage appears on screen, it’s usually as a servant. To have a woman of colour as the central character is pretty much unheard of, but it’s also what makes this film so interesting.

It has all you’d expect from a good British period film – good cinematography, a nicely structured screenplay, a great cast with many familiar faces. But it’s also a fascinating story, even more so because we know it really happened.
Little is known about the real Dido, though from what I understand the script takes quite a few liberties. But there’s no doubt about the essentials of the story – she was brought up in an aristocratic family and her uncle was the judge in the first case of its kind, against a company suspected of drowning a whole cargo of slaves because they were sick and therefore impossible to sell (it was more profitable to get insurance money for them).
The case is an interesting backdrop to what is essentially Dido’s coming of age story. Naturally, finding a suitable marriage partner is a big part of coming of age in a period film and that is a large part of the story. But as the film goes on, the court case starts dominating Dido’s thoughts more and more. To her, it is an important piece of the puzzle of who she really is and where she fits into society.

Obviously, the reason I came across this film in the first place is Tom Felton (I’m a big fan). He has a fairly small part in the film and as usual, he plays the villain – in this case simply the biggest racist (not very far from Draco Malfoy when you think about it, just a different sort of racism). There’s not that much you can do with a part like that, so I wasn’t expecting much, but was surprised. For me this was, in some ways, his creepiest villain yet. While for the most part James Ashford behaves very respectably with the occasional out of line comment here and there, there’s one particular scene that’s really nasty. The scene stayed with me for a while.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is great as Dido. The film relies on her very heavily, she’s pretty much on screen the whole time, so that’s a lot of pressure, but she carries the film well and holds her own with some very good actors. She’s also very natural in all the 18th century manierisms.

There are quite a few familiar faces in the film and it would take too long to mention them all, but one of the stand out supporting performances definitely belongs to Tom Wilkinson. Lord Mansfield is quite a conflicted character, so there was a lot to work with there. He is a man, who tries to be very rational and proper, not allowing his emotions to get in the way of his work and behaviour. But at the same time he loves Dido very much (even while trying to keep her in her proper place – wherever that is!) and is very much disgusted with how a whole ship of slaves was murdered, even while meticulously researching the details of the case and making sure he does not overstep what the letter of the law allows him (the law does not allow him to punish the company responsible for murder, only for insurance fraud, but that needs to be proven beyond doubt).

Sam Reid is very good as John Davinier. The passion he has for human rights really comes through. There’s a beautiful clarity about him.

On the whole, a very good film with a lot of good performances (also ones I haven’t mentioned), but it’s main selling point is very much the story.

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