By Will Ashton
As someone trying desperately to make it into the film critic business, I have made it a priority over the years to see as many different varieties of films as possible. While this has not been challenging—really—in even the slightest sense (except for a couple comedies along the way) there remains one genre that I still cannot shake my ambiance for: period dramas.
I can certainly appreciate them, mind you, but I can’t truly enjoy them. Perhaps the disconnect in time periods just doesn’t touch me emotionally, but I constantly find these movies cold, uninviting and un-affecting, if always usually well made, well acted and well written.
These are much of the same problems I had with Belle. But my feelings towards the movie go a little deeper than that.
Telling the story of a illegitimate mixed-race young girl who becomes a member of high wealth and, later, the center of a civil conflict routed within her well being and the future of her race, there is certainly a lot of weight, both thematically and emotionally, to play at here. Even better, these are mostly topics that have not been tackled in this time and place, and still find relevance today.
All of this should make for an emotionally powerful and, despite culturally different, significant film still for today’s audience. At times, this is certainly true, but, ultimately, Belle is not nearly as emotionally resent and cinematically gripping as it could and should be.
The root of these distressing problems comes namely from Misan Sagay’s overly blunt screenplay. The on-the-nose dialogue neglects any subtlety that the movie should earn too often and rather routinely plotting often drags the movie down. Had this script been given to a writer that was perhaps more out-of-the-box or perhaps not too buried by the scope of the story that they would often have to draw to paper-thin supporting characters and unimaginative storytelling, then the film could truly have earned the scope and majestic nature within its potential.
That said, however, there are clearly signs of wittiness throughout Sagay’s script that keeps the movie more afloat than it probably should be, given the flaws of the people behind the camera. Which saves the movie from being a complete flop, yet makes for a rather frustrating film.
What doesn’t help is that Amma Asante’s direction too often tries to make scenes centered on their sincerity rather than truly digging into what is so compelling about this story. Perhaps for fear that this type of study of character would not appeal to general audiences, or she is not truly sure how to portray this type of story without dragging in over-dramatics.
These melodramatic elements are among their most present whenever Belle wants to focus on the relationship blooming between Dido and John Davinier (Sam Reid). Cloying to a fault, the overly sentimentality of the movie is at its fullest bloom inside these segments. For not only are these scenes incredibly cliché in how they are written, but they are also insulting in how they feel the audience is comprehending the moment.
These are truly when the movie is most frustrating, because these are when the movie seems to think the least of its audience. Moreover, however, this is when the movie is dragging down its over-sentimentality into the ground.
Asante’s direction, however, in terms of her actors is perhaps the biggest saving grace that she has got. While perhaps going back to her wide-eyed theatrics more than she should, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance as the title character (who, oddly enough, actually goes by Dido throughout the majority of the film) is affectingly heartfelt. Is it the type of performance to which she should be considered and win any awards (as buzz about this sort of thing has already been swimming about in early Oscar considerations)? Probably not, but for the two hours that this movie goes on, she is often what keeps it from completely falling apart from Asante and Sagay’s decisions.
Perhaps giving the movie’s best performance, however, is Tom Wilkinson as Dido’s caregiver Lord Mansfield. There is probably a good argument to be made as to whether or not Mansfield is the resistant heart of the film. Whether or not that is true, Wilkinson’s well-minded performance helps to pull the film’s more heady discussions into the forefront, without ever trying to step on the audience’s toes on its importance.
Which, hence, is why his scenes are among the film’s most engaging, as well as the movie’s most successful. For these sequences are truly when the movie seems to shine, for he is able to move away from the over-sincerity of the moment and just center his performance on the importance of his character’s actions without the flattery and over annunciation of his actions. Well, except for one scene near the end, but in its context, it not only makes sense but it rather well earned.
Of course, the art direction, costume design, and general design of the period is all exquisite. It usually always is in these types of movies, though, and it almost seems redundant to even mention them. Of course, a lot of people put a lot of good, hard work into them, and it would be inconsiderate not to applaud them for their work.
If it sounds like I am very back and forth with this movie, it is because I am. This movie is—very much— a mixed bag. There is a lot of good things happening in this movie that, even if I can’t truly enjoy, I can definitely appreciate it. At least, at select moments. This said, however, the heavy-handed nature of the film-making is definitely something weakens the movie way more than it should, especially considering how much potential is at stake here.
In the end, for better or for worse, there is just slightly enough here that should be looked at and appreciated. For all its faults, there is something that should win a lot of people over here. But there is still no denying that there is a much better film here that is failing to come out.