Summer Season is well under way so kudos to the individual who had the good sense to release Belle in the week between two of summers big hitters – 22 Jump Street and How To Train Your Dragon 2. The release date fell in a quiet spot so the opportunity to see Belle was not one to be missed.
PLOT: Set in the late 1700’s mixed-race orphan Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is sent to live with her uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) after her father (Matthew Goode) is killed at sea. Despite receiving a significant inheritance from her father Belle’s status in society is defined by her colour and gender. During her first season in London Belle befriends John Davinier (Sam Reid) a young lawyer who his campaigning against the slave trade, a topic close to her heart. END PLOT
The plot of Belle is based upon a painting which marked the first time a black woman was painted on equal footing with a white woman. Thank you Wikipedia. This marks the most research I have ever carried out for a movie review and normal service will now resume.
Belle is technically a “forbidden love” drama and follows the usual beats until the violins start to sweep with great ferocity and the happy ending occurs. What makes Belle stand out from the usual Nicholas Sparks style drivel is the setting. The familiar rich vs. poor trope is there but in Belle the topics of race and gender are the key themes.
The script is decent although some of the best moments are the unspoken ones such as the judgemental looks directed at Belle from the English aristocracy and Belle's dignified reaction to them. The film doesn’t shy away from the racism Belle suffered but the theme is handled with subtly and not laid on with a trowel.
Despite the love story being at the heart of the film the snippets of information we were treated to in respect of the Zong Massacre became more interesting than the main plot. The Zong Massacre is a story similar to Amazing Grace which unfortunately hasn’t yet been told.
Relative newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw is excellent as Belle as is Tom Wilkinson however it is Miranda Richardson and Tom Felton who steal the show with their performances of Lady Ashford and her son and heir James Ashford. They capture the prejudiced attitudes in respect of social standing and colour to perfection. Tom Felton is officially typecast as the villain but he makes it look so easy.
The costumes are gorgeous with Belle and her cousin Elizabeth wearing some amazing dresses and the scenery and sets are typical fare. There were times when the score was intrusive with the violins being overly enthusiastic at emotional moments – less would have given so much more.
Overall Belle is a very good drama which successfully juggles a love story surrounded by racial and social prejudices. I would have preferred a bit more historical context and wanted more information about the Zong Massacre but I appreciate that this was always background issue. Belle gets a 8/10. More films like this would not be unwelcome.
Summer Season can now resume.