Film Review: Belle

It is fair to say that Belle is certainly not the type of film that I would normal entertain or really pass a second glance at. I’m believe in giving most films a fair chance and am willing to watch pretty much anything once, and yet, period dramas have never grabbed me, they’ve never been something that has interested, intrigued or even invoked much passion within me. But, from simply hearing an interview with Tom Wilkinson and Amma Asante something made me want to see this film.

I was, however, expecting as with a lot of films recently to find that my local multiplex chains were giving it a wide “non screening” birth and as with movies like: The Invisible Woman, Labor Day and Frank it would sadly pass me by until appearing at my local independent cinema. So it was with great surprise to find it not only getting a decent airing, but also, at a time that fitted perfectly into my life.

Now, having been captured by the words of Tom Wilkinson and Amma Asante and then, reinforced by the Wittertainment reviews I didn’t spend too long looking too deeply into the film, I have a brief flirting watch of the trailer and a quick read of the plot synopsis and that was about it. And so, my ideas and expectations were born more out of misguided guesswork than firm hard facts. Something, which, for once created both discord and harmony in the way I initially connected to the film.

Belle is very much a film of two halves and in fact is not so much a story about slavery or racial discrimination as it is a story about the social class structure, rules and requirements of the times to fit, live and conform to a certain role and lifestyle to be classed as acceptable and proper. The story is based around a real life situation but its power and message lies not with the colour of Dido Belle’s skin but rather more so with her gender and illegitimacy. People seem to be throwing accusations and criticism at it as a result of it’s lightness and lack of punch regarding the slavery/race issues, especially when comparing it to recent offerings like 12 Years A Slave, but to me that is completely missing the point. Firstly, we’re in British high society and not the plantations of the American deep south, life was light and fluffy in comparison to the pain and torture and secondly, to even attempt to compact Belle into the slavery box is to narrow the ideas and layers of the film too much, to make it too simplistic.

Stereotype Period Drama - Belle

I started the last paragraph saying the Belle is a film of two halves and it’s that split that is the real issue with it for me. The first half really is a light, fluffy, emotionless period drama. It’s all giggling girls and picnics by the lake. Jane Austen would have felt at home placing the characters within the pages of her books and honestly, I was bored. I was remembering why I shy away from period dramas and wondering if I’d made a bad judgement call with my initial enthusiasm to see the film. The more it went on, the more they doffed their hats, the more I felt like I was looking at a world I find totally disinteresting. It was almost like I was watching through a window; suffering from  that total disconnection which comes from seeing the actions of those inside but without being able to hear their conversations thus totally failing to understand or be drawn into their bigger picture.

However, never judge anything too early, because just when this film feels like it’s on the verge of dropping off, it throws its hat into the lake and it really improves. Talking afterwards, I likened it to listening to an orchestra. Starting out the first half is like being treated to the soft, lightness of the woodwind section playing a slow melodic tune almost as if it’s just passing the time, before suddenly and purposefully, the other sections, the other instruments, join in. Building the wall of sound until you have the orchestra playing as one, as a unit, increasing the tempo, increasing the depth all aiming towards the final glorious few moments when it all comes together and you are treated to everything in perfect harmony. The changing of acts from first to second as it were, is not a twist in the “Hollywood” sense, but rather a subtle and beautiful blending of the power and depth of the film. It’s a subconscious but somehow fitting increase in the layering of the film and the more the goes on, the more and more different sections and ideas come together and mix the more the film starts to grab you and move you in ways the first half failed to so spectacularly.

It’s also this second half when the cast really come alive and shine from the screen. Tom Wilkinson taking the lead role as the matriarchal figurehead has such a strong and believable presence in both appearance and performance that at no point do you ever question him and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in essentially her biggest role to date, never looks out of place or overwhelmed by the company she is keeping. And even as you start to drop further into the supporting cast and the lesser roles, whether a known face or not, almost everyone feels right and apart from Miranda Richardson being slightly typecast in period roles as a result of infamous portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in Blackadder the cast blend effortlessly and perfectly into the world the film creates.

I am actually very surprised about my reaction to the film, I really didn’t know whether I’d enjoy it or not, it’s certainly a major departure from the type of films I am normally drawn towards and yet, I’ve come away having been so impressed and moved by the second half that honestly, I think it’s potentially one of the best films I’ve seen in 2014. Part of me even wants to almost go back and see it again! Just be warned the first half really is a yawn fest…

9 out of 10 stars (9 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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