Belle (2014)

Directed by Amma Asante
Written by Misan Sagay

The period drama is a tried and true genre, with romance aplenty. A lot of times, these films are based on either actual events, or famous novels by one or more of the Bronte sisters. They have been done well, they have been done poorly, they have been done to a mediocre level. They have been done a million times over, and yet they have their audience, devoted and loving. It’s a genre that may tread on familiar themes time and again, but these are good themes, and when done well can be extremely effective. Belle turns the tables on these conventions by adding a new layer: an aristocrat who happens to also be black.

Based on a true story, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate daughter of a man with status (Matthew Goode) and an unknown black woman. When her father is about to set off on a nautical journey, he comes to collect his daughter, who by birth is due her status in the family. As her surrogate sister (Sarah Gadon) is seeking a wealthy husband, Belle’s attractiveness brings suitors and bigots alike. But when her uncle (Tom Wilkinson) faces a challenging verdict as supreme judge, her romance flourishes with a young man whose passion for equality challenges the establishment.

Belle is a film that surprises on a number of different levels, but first and foremost it is a film fueled by its central performance. Gugu Mbatha-Raw shines as Belle, from start to finish. It is her power and conviction that carries not only the role, but the film. Her struggle, her passion and inner turmoil is what makes the film tick and work. Mbatha-Raw hits every scene and every emotion in an extremely powerful performance from a young actress. Without such a strong titular performance, the film very easily could have fallen apart at the seems of its beautiful period costumes. Without the sympathy and empowerment provided in that character, the rest of the film becomes much more trite and conceived in the same test tube all the mediocre period films were born.

Without the material to dig her teeth into, however, Mbatha-Raw would have just been a pretty face looking out of place in Victorian England. Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay also deserve credit for crafting a film with such depth. Belle’s complex character development lets us in to her experience as an out of place aristocrat. The film examines women’s self-doubts and self-esteem with great care, managing to draw parallels to the same issues women go through today, the same horrors they face from men. Belle faces most of this, but Elizabeth faces some too. Not much has changed from then to now, with socio-economic status, race, and other factors affecting relationships. When we get down to it, love should most always win the day. Belle celebrates this.

The case in which Belle’s uncle is involved seems a it of a shoehorn into the greater part of the story, but Asante treats it with enough heft to not make it seem too out of place or forced in, deciding to focus much more of her attention on the romances and Belle’s personal development. Another issue I found with it was the character of Mr. Davinier, who comes across as too ideal, to the point that he becomes unrelatable. In a way he serves at the manic pixie dream boy, instead of girl, whose actions only serve Belle and not his own motives. Perhaps this is an overstatement, and honestly it does not bring the film down much, especially since it’s refreshing to see this role out of a man for once instead of always the woman. These two petty issues are not nearly enough to trump the amazing performance from Mbatha-Raw, or the depth of story presented by Asante and Sagay. Belle is a wonderful, delightful, thoughtful film.

*** – Very Good


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