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"BELLE"
(2014) (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: In the late 18th century, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a British naval officer falls in love with a vicar's son who is leading the charge for social change.
PLOT:
In late 18th-century England, Belle (GUGU MBATHA-RAW) is the illegitimate daughter of a British Royal Navy officer, Sir Jon Lindsay (MATTHEW GOODE), who lives with his uncle and aunt, Lord Mansfield (TOM WILKINSON) and Lady Mansfield (EMILY WATSON). She grows up with her cousin, Elizabeth (SARAH GADON), her aunt Lady Mary Murray (PENELOPE WILTON), and is afforded all of the privileges of being part of the Mansfield family and estate -- except being allowed to dine with guests and be presented for marriage in British high society.

Belle is despondent and, at times, ashamed of her skin color and the limitations it puts on her. When her father dies at sea and leaves her with a sizable inheritance, though, she draws the eye of Oliver Ashford (JAMES NORTON); the greed of his mother, Lady Ashford (MIRANDA RICHARDSON); and the disdain of Oliver's brother, the openly bigoted James Ashford (TOM FELTON). Belle has the opportunity to marry Oliver, but she has fallen in love with a young legal student and the son of a vicar, John Davinier (SAM REID).

John has been currying favor with Belle's uncle, who is also the Lord Chief Justice of the British high court who is about to render his decision on a historic case involving a ship's crew that drowned its slaves en route to London after disease ran rampant among its African prisoners. Rather than show up in port with such "worthless property," John believes they killed them on purpose to collect the insurance money. He falls in love with Belle as he tries to convince her uncle to rule in favor of the insurance companies that are refusing to pay the bogus and immoral claim.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Something crazy happened this week. On Monday night, I previewed the new "Godzilla" movie. It was two-plus hours where the Baltimore-Washington audience sat there mostly stone-faced and watched as awesome digital beasties beat the heck out of each other and three major American cities. It's a grim film, rather joyless, but the spectacle is certainly there and will please anyone who goes into the theater looking for a pummeling experience. If you feel that the only way to get your money's worth at today's movie-theater prices is to see dozens upon dozens of buildings crumble; several major bridges and historical landmarks thrashed; and a myriad of trains, planes, and automobiles tossed about and crushed ... "Godzilla" is your flick! It's like an insurance agent's worst nightmare.

But if you still think it's worth it to pay the same prices and see well-drawn, endearing characters relating to each other, dealing with real issues and real emotions, and seizing control of their destinies and actively taking on issues of critical importance to mankind ... then "Belle," which I screened the very next evening, is your night out at the cinema! This is a film where the audience cheered and reacted throughout to things that happened on screen. They reacted as if they were watching the stories of friends and distant relatives unfolding. People laughed, they cried, they gladly kissed 10 bucks goodbye.

This is the involving story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy officer in late 18th century England. As a child, her father takes her to live with his upper-crust uncle (Tom Wilkinson) and aunt (Emily Watson) at their estate while he is sent on a long-term deployment. He doesn't return, and Belle inherits his fortune. But because of her dark skin, she can only go so far in this society, which brings her into conflict with her family who is well-meaning and loves her, but can't quite get past society's views and attitudes towards people of color.

Belle's social consciousness is awoken when she falls for a young vicar's son named John Davinier (Sam Reid), who is studying to be a lawyer and has taken on what will become the historic Zong massacre -- in which slave traders intentionally drowned over 140 shackled Africans at sea to collect insurance money. One problem. Belle's uncle, Lord Mansfield, is the Lord Chief Justice sitting in judgment at the trial.

The film sounds like it is heavy, and it certainly will make you think as well as feel. But its director, Amma Asante, employs a sure hand here and leaves enough air in her narrative to tell a compelling love story and also deliver some broad laughs involving all of the silly social climbing of the time. It really helps that the younger actors here -- Mbatha-Raw, Reid, and Sarah Gadon as Belle's good-hearted white cousin, Elizabeth -- are mostly unknowns. So, they really come alive as these characters. It's been reported that Mbatha-Raw has been attached to this project for nearly seven years while the filmmakers tried to secure financing and distribution. The fact that she has spent more time in the title character's skin than just the usual script-reading and rehearsal process shows. It's quite a performance.

If I have one major beef with "Belle" it's that I really wanted to see more of the John Davinier character. Reid really kills it in the role. But his character is presented with very little background and context. Whereas Belle by virtue of being the title character gets important scenes and moments with every major and minor character throughout the film, John only gets to play off of her and her uncle during their key moments. We see him with friends and colleagues at a distance at parties, in taverns, and in the courtroom. But it's all just a bunch of shared laughs and back-patting. He was an interesting enough character that I wanted to see more of him and what makes him tick. Instead, he is too often reduced to big speeches and emotional pleas in the film's second half.

Other than that, this is a really solid film that I was with from the first moment to the last. "Belle" is a tonic for those a bit bleary-eyed from the exploits of giant lizards, web-slinging super-heroes, and more fantastical silliness on the way. I give it a very enthusiastic 8 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed May 13, 2014 / Posted May 16, 2014


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