Friday, February 13, 2015

Belle (2013 film)

Directed by Amma Asante and written by Asante and Misan Sagay, Belle is the story of an illegitimate mixed-race girl who is sent by her father to live with her rich relatives as she copes with her identity and what her uncle does while falling for an aspiring lawyer. Inspired by a 1779 painting, the film is a fictionalized story about Dido Elizabeth Belle and the events that she took part in that led to the abolishment of slavery in Britain as she is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Also starring Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, Penelope Wilton, Miranda Richardson, Tom Felton, Matthew Goode, Sam Reid, and James Norton. Belle is an exquisitely rich and ravishing film from Amma Asante.

The film is a fictionalized story about Dido Elizabeth Belle as she is a young woman who is half-black and half-white as her white father asks his relatives to care for her where she would contend with her identity as well as what to do with herself as she falls for an aspiring lawyer. It’s a film that plays into this young woman who has all of the means to advance in upper-class society yet is often confused due to her skin color as well as what her uncle is doing as it relates to a famous trial relating to an incident known as the Zong Massacre. Yet, it’s more about this woman who is trying to understand who she is as she deals with prejudice for who she is as well as cope with what is happening in this trial that is happening.

The film’s screenplay does take a few dramatic liberties as it relates to the trial of Gregson vs. Gilbert yet it is more about Dido’s relationship with her uncle William Murray 1st Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) who would take the young Dido in as he cares for her as well as her status. A status in which Dido would inherit money from her late father (Matthew Goode) as well as be given a much larger inheritance from her uncle and aunts. It’s a status that would help Dido as she would get the attention of many suitors but it would create some problems in her relationship with her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) who is in need to marry someone who has money or else she would be destitute despite Dido wanting to share her inheritance with her. While there’s a chance for Elizabeth to be married into a rich family when Dido gets engaged to Oliver Ashford (James Norton), Dido still has to contend with Oliver’s bigoted older brother James (Tom Felton) and their scheming mother Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson).

It is when Dido meets John Davinier (Sam Reid) where she begins to ask questions about not just herself but also what is happening around her as it becomes a key plot-point for the film. Especially as Davinier is a young man who doesn’t come from a rich family as he aspires to change the world through law as he rouses Dido’s view of the world as she thinks about herself and where would she be if her father hadn’t took her out of the slums and into a life of great wealth and love. Yet, Davinier would prove to be a man who doesn’t just see Dido as more than just a woman with mixed-skin but as a woman where the two fall in love though he’s not the kind of person that her uncle wants her to be with because of her rich status as she also has to think about her own family. Still, Murray’s encounter with Davinier and Dido’s own awareness of who she is would come into play into not just the decision of this court case but in also how he sees Dido as more than just family.

Amma Asante’s direction is truly exquisite as it plays into a drama where a young woman deals with her upbringing as well as the role she is destined to play along with her identity. Most notably in the way she creates a period drama that manages to be so much more as well as play into how things were back in the late 18th Century where it is set during a crucial period in British history when slavery was still prevalent. Asante would maintain something that feels quite contemporary while still giving the film a feel that is set in 18th Century as she would bring in some unique wide and medium shots into the film but also some unique close-ups into the film as it relates to Dido’s relationship with Davinier. There’s also a few hand-held camera shots and some tracking shots to play into some of the drama while Asante’s compositions are very entrancing to the way it plays into a world that is changing as well as being sort of disconnected from what is really happening.

The direction is also very intriguing for the way it explores the Zong Massacre and the Gregson vs. Gilbert which plays into Davinier trying to reveal exactly what is at stake. While Murray is a man that has the power to create change, he’s reluctant as he has a lot on his plate about how it would effect Britain but also his own status and his own family. Asante maintains that sense of tension that is in Murray as he also copes with the future of his own nieces as his wife Lady Elizabeth (Emily Watson) and his sister Lady Mary (Penelope Wilton) are trying to ensure that Dido and Elizabeth will marry to good families. The film does climax with not just the trial itself but also the reveal of the famous painting that features both Dido and Elizabeth as it relates to exactly how Murray sees Dido. Overall, Asante creates a very captivating and evocative film about a young woman dealing with her identity as well as knowing what she wants in her life as well as how she sees the world.

Cinematographer Ben Smithard does brilliant work with the film‘s very lush and colorful cinematography for the look of the gardens and exterior in the daytime scenes to the usage of candlelight and other lights to play into some of its nighttime interior and exterior scenes. Editors Pia Di Ciaula and Victoria Boydell do amazing work with the editing as it‘s quite straightforward while also having bits of style in a few montages and some dazzling rhythmic cuts. Production designer Sarah Bowles, with set decorator Tina Jones and supervising art director Ben Smith, does phenomenal work with the set pieces from the homes the characters live in as well as the courthouse and the look of the slums where Dido‘s father found her in the film‘s opening sequence. Costume designer Anushia Nieradzik does fantastic work with the design of the dresses from the way it plays to the personality of the women as well as the clothes that the men wear.

Hair/makeup designer Marese Langan does excellent work with the design of the wigs some of the men wore as well as the hairstyle of the men and women. Visual effects supervisor Henry Badgett and Angela Barson do terrific work with the minimal visual effects scenes that is really more set dressing in a few key scenes. Sound editor Lee Herrick and sound designer Robert Ireland do superb work with the sound from the way shoes sound on floors to some of the scenes at the parties that occur in the film. The film’s music by Rachel Portman is wonderful as it is largely a lush orchestral score that adds to the sense of drama while music supervisor Maggie Rodford bring in a soundtrack that is largely classical pieces from Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.

The casting by Toby Whale is incredible as it features some notable small roles from Bethan Mary-Jones as the black maid Mabel, Lauren Julien-Box as the young Dido, Cara Jenkins as the young Elizabeth, Alex Jennings as James and Oliver’s father, and Matthew Goode in a brief but very touching role as Dido’s father Captain John Lindsay who manages to the most of his brief role. James Norton is terrific as Oliver Ashford as the youngest of the two brothers who likes Dido while Tom Felton is superb as Oliver’s more prejudiced older brother James who detests Dido for being black while proving to be very cruel to Elizabeth. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as Dido and Elizabeth’s aunt Lady Mary as someone who tries to keep both women in check while realizing their fate if both women don’t find men to be in love with. Miranda Richardson is brilliant as Lady Ashford as a woman who doesn’t like Dido very much only to agree to Oliver’s engagement to her out of ensuring that her son will have money.

Sarah Gadon is fantastic as Elizabeth as Dido’s cousin who is like a sister to Dido as she copes with the changes in Dido’s life but also her own future as she tries to find a good husband so she wouldn’t be destitute. Emily Watson is excellent as Lady Elizabeth as Murray’s wife who is considered the conscious of the film as she tries to ensure the futures for both Dido and Elizabeth while trying to make sense of the decision that her husband is going to make in this court case. Sam Reid is amazing as John Davinier as a reverend’s son who aspires to be a lawyer and makes change as he has this presence that is very engaging as someone that displays some humility as he is intrigued by Dido where he would eventually fall for her.

Tom Wilkinson is phenomenal as William Murray as a man who reluctantly takes Dido in only to care for her as if she was his daughter as he copes with everything he’s trying to do for her as well as being involved in a case that involves blacks which affects the decision he would make. Finally, there’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw in an absolutely tremendous performance as Dido Elizabeth Belle as this young woman who is coping with her identity and place in the world while realizing the complications of the real world as it relates to her race as well as what is expected from her as a woman as it’s a very radiant and powerful performance.

Belle is a remarkable film Amma Asante that features an incredible performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Along with a strong supporting cast as well as an engaging story that features some insightful historical elements. It’s a film that manages to be more than a period piece and a character study as it is also a film that features characters coping with changes as well as uncertainty in their idyllic and safe environment. In the end, Belle is a sensational film from Amma Asante.

© thevoid99 2015


Brittani Burnham said...

Excellent review! This has been in my Netflix queue for awhile, I'm looking forward to seeing it after hearing such good things.

Wendell Ottley said...

This was a very interesting watch for me since all the movies I've seen set in the 18th century about slavery about what happened here in the southern US. It was good seeing it from a different perspective. Mbatha-Raw was very good, but I thought Wilkinson was the more intriguing character as he moral dilemma was weighing heavily upon him. It got a bit to sappy for me as it went on but I still thought it was very good.

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani-Thanks. It was on HBO so I decided to record it and alas, it was better than I thought it would be.

@Wendell Ottley-Wilkinson was the most interesting character of the film as I really enjoyed his performance which I think was overlooked in awards season.

Ruth said...

YAY!! Glad you love this film too Steven! It's truly exquisite indeed, I was in fact just let the director Amma Asante about it on Twitter and how much I really like the brief interactions between Belle and Mabel. All the cast are brilliant here and I'm glad you mentioned Sam Reid here as well who's terrific and affecting as Davinier but the real star here is no doubt Mbatha-Raw, too bad her performance went largely unrecognized :(

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-The Academy are a bunch of morons for overlooking this film. It's got so much to offer in terms of storytelling as well as characters to be engaged by. I want to see more of Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid.

Ruth said...

Well you said it Steven, there are tons of moronic decisions in the nominations. I mean there is no way is Reese Witherspoon is better in any way than Gugu was here and in Beyond the Lights, two VERY different roles she did brilliantly in one year.

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-That is true. Still, I would take Reese instead of Jennifer Aniston. I'm definitely eager to see Beyond the Lights.