Directed by: Amma Asante
Premise: Based on a true story. The biracial daughter of an English gentleman is raised by her aristocratic uncle who is also one of the highest judges in England. When she comes of age, the tension between her social stature and her racial heritage makes it difficult for her to find a husband. At the same time her uncle must hear a critical case on slavery.
What Works: In the past few years there has been a small trend of mainstream movies dealing with the history of slavery including Django Unchained, Lincoln, and 12 Years a Slave, and the latest installment in this trend is Belle. This film focuses on slavery in British history and Belle is notable for the way it avoids some of the pitfalls common to motion pictures dealing with racism. There is a tendency to portray racism as a personal flaw as opposed to a social or an institutional problem and filmmakers often construct racism as a character trait of the antagonist. As these films have it, when the adversary is defeated, racism is extinguished which is a mistakenly simplistic notion. Belle is a bit more sophisticated than that. The filmmakers are able to use the British class structure to portray race as one element existing within a complicated social system and they link race, gender, and social class together in a way that makes the film a more nuanced portrayal of eighteenth century British society. Belle is primarily held together by the lead performance of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role. As the protagonist of the story the character of Belle is limited in what she can do because of the restrictions of an upper class woman in the British society of the time. This inherently hampers the drama but Mbatha-Raw does a very good job with the role despite her limitations. She brings a lot of intelligence and dignity to the part and she retains a degree of vulnerability that makes her an engaging lead character. Also featured in the cast are Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson as Belle’s guardians. Actors in costume dramas tend to be stiff but Wilkinson and Watson bring a lot of humanity to their roles which makes the drama believable and relatable to a contemporary audience.
What Doesn’t: Belle sometimes suffers from being overbearingly melodramatic. This isn’t a constant problem for the movie and most of it is appropriately staid but whenever the filmmakers go for major emotional beats they turn up the drama to eleven. The melodrama can be heard in the overbearing music score by Rachel Portman, which at its most obtuse drowns out the dialogue, and it’s also found in the performances of the male cast. Both Matthew Goode, who plays Belle’s father, and Sam Reid, who plays a middle class lawyer campaigning against slavery, constantly overplay the righteous indignation of their characters. The actors’ performances come across as out of proportion with the movie because the story does not concretize the stakes. In the same way that Lincoln failed to connect the procedural and intellectual arguments of the American government with the realities of plantation life, Belle does not match the characters’ moral outrage with the horrors of slavery. To be fair, most of those outrages are outside the scope of the story and would probably have to be shoehorned into the film but the absence of tangible stakes handicaps the drama. Instead, the racism of Belle is mostly found in snide comments made by the upper class characters, in particular Tom Felton as a racist gentleman who is fishing for a bride. Felton’s career peaked with his role as Draco Malfoy and his part in Belle is actually quite similar to his role in the Harry Potter series. Felton is not a very good actor and he is often as cartoonishly villainous as the other characters are melodramatically righteous.
Bottom Line: Despite caving to its sentimentality, Belle is a pretty good movie. It tells an unusual story and it does a better than average job portraying the complicated interplay of race, class, and gender. The movie comes up a little light on substance but as a period romance it works.
Episode: #496 (June 22, 2014)