If there’s one thing that people tend to assume about my movie taste, it’s that I don’t like romantic movies. That’s not so much untrue as it is inaccurate. It’s true I’m not much of a romantic person (and if anyone I’ve ever dated, now or in the past, says otherwise, don’t trust them) but that’s not really the issue. I tend to feel that a romance alone isn’t usually enough to hold up a plot on its own, and trying to shove it haphazardly into a larger plot is obviously not the way to go. Basically what I’m saying is the romance has to be well worked into the story and a central part, but not THE central part.
As you can imagine, this is a very hard balancing act to pull off.
The plot, which sits somewhere between Glory and Jane Austen, is a heavily fictionalized biography of Did0 Elizabeth Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and unfortunately not named after Dido of Carthage). Don’t know who Dido Elizabeth Belle is? Don’t worry about it, neither did I. She is the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of an English noble and a freed slave, which as you can imagine is an unfortunate thing to be in 1763. She is taken in by her father’s extended family and raised as a noblewoman. When she grows up, she inherits her father’s fortune, leaving her in awkward position. As the movie puts it, she is too low in class to dine with the family but too high to dine with the servants. The main thrust of the narrative is concerned with her finding a husband who is interested enough in her status and fortune (there’s a Sansa Stark joke in there) to overlook her skin color…look it was in the 1700s, slavery was still a thing, THEY bring it up. Anyway, amidst a main plot mostly concerned with her having to choose between a low class abolitionist lawyer and a high class but only interested in her money suitor, there’s stuff involving her cousin trying to find a wealthy husband and her adopted father acting as Judge over the Zong Massacre case (look it up).
In case my description didn’t make it clear, the film is at its best when it’s about the other things BESIDES the lawyer vs. gentleman stuff. The Zong Massacre case (look, I’ll just link to it’s wikipedia entry, that way you don’t have to look it up), the politics of the day, and Dido’s relationship with her family all that stuff is interesting. The main romance between Dido and the lawyer (technically named John and played by Sam Reid) is well written for the most part, but it lacks the interest and stakes of the other plots. Unlike say Pride and Prejudice, Dido is already financially secure when the plot begins so the main thing at stake is whether Dido will…well basically get to do what she wants. It’s not a deal breaker, but it does make the stretches of film about the main romance feel draggy and less interesting.
It is an actor’s movie, so a lot of this is on the cast to sell, and they’re across the board pretty good. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is pretty good in the lead, no Lupita Nyong’o, but good. Her performance is at it’s best when it’s quiet or physical, as in an early scene where she has to convey her emotions without talking. On the supporting side of things we’ve got Tom Wilkinson doing solid work as Dido’s adopted father, who has a lot of stuff involving what he thinks the law is involving the Zong case and his own feelings toward his daughter and slavery in general. It’s also nice to see good tertiary work from Emily Watson and Tom Felton (yes, Draco Malfoy himself). Unfortunately the big letdown in the acting department is a pretty important one. Sam Reid isn’t bad per se, he’s just average but when he’s in charge of holding up half the movie, his occasional failures to rise to the occasion become all the more noticeable.
On the plus side, it’s a gorgeously shot movie, even if it occasionally has difficulty deciding if it wants to be Gosford Park or Barry Lyndon (Christ, this becoming a good review for referencing other things). The costumes, sets, locations, makeup, all those things you never notice unless they’re really good or really bad, all those things are great. It looks fantastic and it’s overall well written, so it passes muster on the ‘well made’ aspect.
I have other minor irritations, besides the aforementioned focus on the wrong thing. There are some very weird editing choices, especially in the first act. I’m hesitant to describe them as problem per se, since I think a lot of them were an intentional choice by the editor, but I don’t think they work entirely. I also have an issue with the way the movie progresses. The movie has barely begun before Dido is a full grown adult with all of her relationships and understanding of her standing in society in place. What I’m saying is a slightly longer buildup from child to adult with more room to elaborate on some of the secondary points might have been preferable.
Belle is part of a growing number of summer counter programming, movies with artistic and intellectual ambitions that would normally have come out in fall or winter as part of the Oscar season, but instead come out during the spring or early summer. Beasts of the Southern Wild and Moonrise Kingdom from 2012, Stoker from 2013, even Grand Budapest Hotel from this year, are all examples of this and it’s a new trend I’m fond of. And while Belle might not live all the way up to those other examples, it’s still a fine little movie, a unique and interesting story well told. So if you’re looking for something besides superheroes to go see, Belle is probably your best bet.
Elessar is a 24 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s not certain what kind of accent Sam Reid was going for.
– good script and acting
– unique subject matter
– excellent at depicting the period.
– weak second act
– romance isn’t very interesting
– Sam Reid isn’t very good