Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 09, 2014 6:34 pm 
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Slave ships and bursting bodices

Belle is a mix of two things, which Glenn Kenny on has called "Austenesque Romance and Socially Conscious Drama." The movie is beautiful to look at, engaging, and well, if not brilliantly, written. But there are two stories here, and though they may have been intertwined in the "real events" on which the movie is based, they can get in each other's way at times. (Let's note, in passing, that, as Kenny notes, Jane Austen was not at all prepared to deal with the issues of politics and race that are spotlighted in Belle.)

We are at the dawning of the important development described in Michael Apted's 2007 Amazing Grace: England's late 18th-, early 19th-century withdrawal from the slave trade. Apart from racist attitudes, there were financial ones, since slave ships were central to the country's economy. That's the Socially Conscious Drama. Meanwhile as its handling of an important legal case pivotal for the crushing of the slave involvement of England is heating up, two half-sisters in a rich household are doing the Jane Austen thing: they are coming of age and looking for a husband, which turns out to be a turbulent and almost bodice-ripping affair. That's the Austenesque Romance -- though as in Austen herself, its as much a series of tense negotiations and family squabbles as anything exactly romantic, even if, sure enough, there are declarations of love and kisses at the end.

We begin with a pretty little mulatto girl (Lauren Julien-Box), the Belle of the title, though she's called Dido. She's the illegitimate daughter of British naval admiral Capt Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) who brings her to be raised by wealthy and important relatives, her great uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who happens to be Lord Chief Justice of England. On hand, and disapproving when the "black" girl shows up, is Lady Mansfield (a buttoned-down Emily Watson). Her color, she notes to Sir John, is "a detail you chose not to share with us!" Dido's status is a bit odd, due to her color. She is loved and cherished, and she has a constant companion in her half-cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon): they grow up together like twin sisters. But the mature Dido is not allowed to dine with the family, at least not when guests are present. She comes in after dinner, and that she's a mulatto still shocks people: life chez Mansfield, though the house and grounds are grand as you could possibly imagine, is rather isolated. After Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is grown up, perfectly well-dressed, beautiful, and articulate and a whiz at the clavichord, without her ever seeing her father again, he dies, leaving her all his fortune, amounting to two thousand pounds a year. "You're an heiress!" Lady Elizabeth tells her.

Lady Elizabeth hasn't got money, so marrying well is essential for her, while Lord Mansfield advises Dido she need not marry at all: her inheritance has freed them of the dilemma of finding her a mate. But everyone wants a mate, and in fact Dido fares better than Elizabeth. She winds up with a proposal from an eminently suitable gentleman who's fascinated by her -- and an unsuitable man who loves her and whom she loves. Dido and John Davinier (Sam Reid), the unsuitable one, Lord Mansfield's too-liberal and macho-handsome legal apprentice, who's a mere son of a parson, develop quick harmonies of physical attraction and moral sympathy, while Dido agrees to marry the pretty-cool Oliver Ashford (James Norton). The snooty and prejudiced Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson), Oliver's mother, consents to his marrying a mulato when she knows how super-rich Dido is. Unfortunately Oliver's brother James (Tom Felton, Harry Potter's long-time Draco Malfoy), who's the only one interested in marrying Elizabeth, turns out to be a vicious racist.

Meanwhile there is the insurance case that is the Socially Conscious focus: it has introduced Davinier to the household. Tom Wilkinson shows that he is as good at playing a stolid 18th-century judge and lord of the manor as he is at playing neurotic husbands or morally compromised cops, and looks just as right. Lord Mansfield is the pivot-point of the tale, and Wilkonson does the best he can with the obvious trajectory of a stern defender of the status quo moved by Dido and his over-zealous and over-romantic apprentice Davinier, inevitably, to a more liberal position when the key case comes up to a decision. It concerns "the Zong massacre," the insurance demands of a shipping company for loss of "property" -- a load of slaves murdered at sea by its white crew. They have claimed a shortage of water necessitated the slaughter. The facts turn out to be otherwise.

The action begins to shift restlessly between the marriage debates of Elizabeth and Dido, on the one hand, and events at the teeming Inns of Court, whose surroundings seem to have been something of a slum, on the other. After a while Dido herself winds up rushing back and forth between the two places, commandeering the family carriage on her own, to see Davinier and to witness the decision in the case. The cutting back and forth is used, in classic Hitchcockian fashion, to generate tension. But it winds up dissipating energy from both story-lines. Of course, for black viewers, there is a value in having an appealing black character central to the events, even as the larger issue of the evil of slavery is touched on. One doesn't get to see slaves, or slave-owners, and things are very tame here, to the relief of some, after McQueen's recent and celebrated 12 Years a Slave, or Apted's turbulent Amazing Grace.

Belle is a feast to the eyes, and the ornate and formal language, especially in early scenes, contributes to a sense of the period. Unfortunately none of the lines is particularly memorable, nor are the settings as varied or the characters as colorful and memorable as in Amazing Grace . This is a smaller footnote on the period, and its message is more muted.

Belle, 104 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2013, and opened theatrically in the US in NYC and Los Angeles 2 May 2014.

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