Belle: Movie Review
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sarah Gadon, Miranda Richardson, Tom Felton
Director: Amma Asante
Based on a true story, and inevitably drawing parallels with 12 Years A Slave (even if they're somewhat misplaced) Belle stars rising talent Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Belle.
It's 1769 England, and Belle's the illegitimate mixed race daughter of an English admiral (played briefly by Matthew Goode), stuck in a household that elevates her status above those of the house staff, but below the family, thus leaving her with no real place.
Ironically though, she's been left an inheritance from the admiral, meaning she has money and no chance to break through the social mores hurled in her direction. While her great uncle, Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson) appears to support her, he's feeling pressurised and almost compromised in his position as Chief Justice, about to rule on whether an insurance claim for drowned slaves is a fraud, a ruling which could have implications for the UK's slave trade.
As Belle finds her own voice, it begins to put her in conflict with Mansfield, as well as social expectations for her impending potential marriage....
Belle is terribly English; a dash of stiff upper-lip cum A Level text (English class) mixed in with the language of Pride and Prejudice and all swooshed up with a pinch of commentary on social mores.
As a result of that, it suffers occasionally from a bout of stuffiness and with the feeling that the story doesn't have room to breathe or a life of its own. All of the performances are very actorly, but there's little heart and passion in it outside of Wilkinson and Mbatha-Raw's turns.
Miranda Richardson seems to desperately channel Queenie from BlackAdder and Harry Potter's Draco Malfoy aka Tom Felton is so close to a pantomime villain, he just needs a dastardly chuckle and a moustache to twirl.
Thankfully though, a restrained turn from Mbatha-Raw stands out in this piece. Her Belle is more frustrated than helpless meaning empathy is with her right from the beginning. There are moments when she relies a little too heavily on the big brown eyes approach and looking breathless but she manages to convince overall and give some much needed life into a script so deprived of oxygen.
If anything, she's the one high point in a movie, which, while not terrible, struggles to keep the audience engaged throughout - despite the importance of the story and the quality of some of the performances.