Belle: A Halfhearted Pride and Prejudice Knockoff
Belle, the British independently produced light costume drama, currently in select theatres, has been oft compared to Jane Austen’s literary works. Austen, the 18th century writer of such novels as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, is one of the finest satirists of the English language. In her works, she makes timeless social commentaries about the absurdity of class structure, social climbing and the institution of marriage enriched by her canny creations of an assortment of dynamic and eminently relatable characters.
Belle, loosely based on the life a real 18th century English mixed-raced woman, is nowhere near that caliber. Instead, the film is more of what many people wrongly misconstrue Austen’s books to be, a lightweight chick flick. Perhaps the premise of the “inspiring true story”- the heroine, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), heiress to a large fortune from her white father, is wealthier than many, but socially unequal – is Austen-esque. Under the thin surface, Belle is remarkably unambitious standard Hollywood fare.
The film’s intentions of being a dumbed-down confection for the masses is immediately evident in the opening intertitle which informs us that in 1729, England was still a colonial and slave trading nation. Mind-blowing stuff for anybody who slept through Western History.
That does not mean that it is without some merit. There are some valiant attempts to show the complexity and hypocrisy of race and Belle’s predicament. For the most part, the filmmakers put most of the characters in a gray spectrum of race, not being so clear cut racist or anti-racist.
The detractors ultimately outweigh the assets.
The chief problem is that Misan Sagay’s screenplay gives the protagonist precious little to do outside of the first act where Belle has a hard time grappling with her race and how she is treated. After she inherits the estate from her father, her opportunities on screen diminish. In a way, the plot element acts as a premature Cinderella story without the pumpkin or midnight curfew story complications. Belle almost magically went to all the parties and went out wherever she pleased.
The major conflict in the second half of the film pertains to a lawsuit against a slave-trading ship for dumping their sick human cargo for insurance money. As done, it felt separated from the heroine. Supposedly this storyline is to raise Belle’s social conscience but it ends up turning her into a sniveling ingénue who gets into pseudo philosophical arguments with her guardian (Tom Wilkinson), the chief magistrate in the slave boat case.
Rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw has a couple of strong moments when she’s slapping herself in the mirror or when she bluntly and lucidly tells her cousin the facts of life. Overall, Mbatha-Raw gives a colorless performance. Yes, she is always emoting and sporting a different facial expression every time the camera was on her. All of this busywork acting makes her look like an amateurish overeager high school theatre geek who has more spunk than talent. Her most cringe-worthy moments are when she has to enact Sagay’s feeble attempts of an Elizabeth Bennet wannabe, which she is clearly uncomfortable doing.
As the supposedly passionate anti-slave advocate and lower class son of a vicar who loves Belle, Sam Reid lacks fire and their love scenes are totally catatonic.
Sarah Gadon, David Cronenberg’s latest muse, on one level is a perfect fit for Western period dramas like Belle with her exotically sallow old-timey face and petite frame. When required to be more than a mannequin, ergo acting, she (as in Cronenberg’s dull A Dangerous Method) has an unappealingly alien way of delivering dialogue and overexaggerates emotional scenes.
In spite of the lazy typecasting, the veteran British actors perform their roles that they’ve done for the last few years with aplomb. Tom Wilkinson gives a lot of nuance and dignity as the crusty figure of authority who is ultimately venerable. Despite having the most threadbare role as the spinster aunt, Penelope Wilton is best in show, taking what could have easily been a one dimensionally shrewish and silly character and providing her with a sympathetic undertone of a woman who has a lot of underlying sadness yet is still romantic. With her stern facial expressions, she is the only one who can breathe some humor into this heavily belabored script. Although nowhere near as rich as the roles in the 90s, Miranda Richardson is wonderfully bitchy as the opportunistic and selectively racist noblewoman.
Of the veterans, only Emily Watson, another underutilized 90s star, falters. In all fairness, she is saddled with the hopeless role of the holier-than-thou wife of Tom Wilkinson’s character who sermonizes him to do the right thing.
Director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay are relative newcomers to their craft (This is Asante’s second directorial job and Sagay’s third screenplay). It is disappointing that already in their careers, they have made something incredibly traditional and predictable. I was hoping that they might breathe some new blood into the project. I should have known better considering that Sagay’s teleplay for the Oprah-produced TV Movie of Their Eyes Were Watching God reduced Zora Neale Hurston’s multilayered novel into two slow hours of Halle Berry lusting after everything in sight.
Most of the behind the scenes people give mediocre contributions. Rachel Portman provides another one of her generic classical musical scores; the loud sweltering violins in the last act make the final moments even more annoyingly strident. Ben Smithard’s cinematography is mostly static and routine with the exception of awkward shots of Belle’s and Elizabeth’s pulsating breasts which felt unnecessary and a bit exploitational.
Claudio Campana’s art decoration and Tina Jones’ sets stand out for their original take of providing minimalist work. Costume dramas are usually ostentatious in this department, filling every square inch with ornate detail usually to cover up the rest of the film’s vapidity. In contrast, their sets are very restrained, showing the unsentimental and pragmatic side of the characters as well as depicting England in a truer, grayer light. Pity the script didn’t have this attention to detail.
Many people might think that Belle would be a substitute for a more psychologically taxing drama like 12 Years a Slave. It’s not. This does not mean that I think a film that does not have the unrelenting intensity and gravitas of Slave is less worthwhile. Actually, there is a serious need for good films about the black experience that don’t depress the hell out of you. Worse than relegating the slave story to the back of the carriage in favor of a trite romance, is Belle’s prevailing dullness.
For those looking for a lighter black-themed film, I recommend the 1976 Brazilian comedy, Xica da Silva, which is also an 18th century costume film, about the real life Xica (Zezé Motta), a slave in colonial Brazil, who rises to social and economic prominence as the mistress of a Portuguese diamond trader who becomes involved with a political radical. The film stayed light and funny but it had something meaningful to say. Motta gave a far more dynamic performance than Mbatha-Raw. Good luck finding a copy.
One final note: folks, please fully consider both works before loosely throwing comparisons between Belle and Jane Austen.