FlixChatter Review: BELLE (2013)

Belle_filmposter

As a big fan of period dramas, I’ve been looking forward to this film since last November when I first heard about it. Well, seven months later I finally got to see it and it’s certainly worth the wait.

The film opens with a Royal Navy Admiral (Matthew Goode) picking up a young mixed-race girl from a ship and brought her to live with his aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson), where she’s raised alongside her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Unlike the Austen/Brontës adaptations, Belle is based on a true story. In fact, filmmaker Amma Assante was inspired by an 18th century painting of the real life miss Belle. It’s also the first time I saw a period drama starring a mixed race woman, an illegitimate child no less, which no doubt made for a tricky predicament growing up in Georgian era. Lord Mansfield tried to shelter her from the horror of slavery, but not from the dismal reality of racism.

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How may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants and too low in rank to dine with my family?

The question above that Belle posed to Lord Mansfield (whom she called ‘papa’) sums up her situation perfectly. Though Belle is brought up in such a privileged home, she’s constantly reminded of her place in the world, which is really no place for anyone to belong to. The color of her skin also prevents her from fully participating in society traditions and especially the issue of finding a suitable husband. The fact that Belle later becomes a woman of means after she inherited her father’s considerable fortune only made it trickier. It’s as if she’s a ‘free slave who begs for a master,’ Belle said to her confidante, a dashing and idealistic son of a vicar, John Davinier (Sam Reid).

Many people are likely comparing this film to 12 Years of Slave, but I think this this film is more akin to the excellent-yet-underrated Amazing Grace, which focused on British politician William Wilberforce who endeavored to end the British transatlantic slave trade in the late 1700s. As in Amazing Grace, there’s no gory brutality of slavery being shown, but it doesn’t mean we didn’t feel the barbaric reality of such practice. Yet unlike those two films (and most films of its kind), it’s intriguing to see the story of racial inequality from a woman’s point of view. The fact that we’ve got a British female director (Amma Assante) at the helm and a female screenwriter penning the script (Misan Sagay) certainly gave the film a unique perspective.

Assante’s astute direction offers a nice balance between the moral drama and the love story, as we become more and more invested in the characters, most especially Belle. I love how Assante re-enacted the making of the painting I mentioned above, it’s one of the many highlights of the film for me. There are also a few humorous moments to break the tension of the heavy subject matter. The cinematography and art direction are beautiful, the costumes are as gorgeous as the cast, but most importantly, it’s not style over substance. The dialog feels natural and the script is laden with lots of quotable remarks that really drive the sentiments home.

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As for the performances, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle is the heart and soul of this film. I was quite taken by the English actress’ nuanced and emotional performance right from the start. This is hopefully her first of many leading roles as she is not only beautiful, but has the screen charisma to match. She’s able to convey a deep sense of hurt, but is just as convincing when she’s fiercely-defiant. The ensemble cast is chock full of the best of British thespians, starting with Wilkinson and Watson, as well as Penelope Wilson and Miranda Richardson delivering memorable supporting roles. Aussie-born British actor Sam Reid has everything you’d want in a period drama hero: dashing, gentle, kind, and with strong conviction. His Davinier is almost too good to be true, plus his scorching chemistry with Mbatha-Raw made for some breathless moments. The weak link here to me is Tom Felton who once again plays a villain of sort, all contemptuous sneer as the racist would-be suitor to Belle’s cousin Elizabeth. He’s practically playing a variation of Harry Potter‘s Draco Malfoy here.

Though the finale is quite predictable, it still packs quite an emotional punch. Now, I don’t know how historically Belle had influenced the abolition of slavery in England, but it can be presumed that she had a hand in shaping the decision of Lord Mansfield as Lord Chief Justice in his ruling over the Zong Massacre case. It’s the case where the slaves were deemed more worthy dead than alive, a reality that could very well happened to Dido herself had it not been for the ‘grace of God,’ as Davinier put it. Even with the creative license taken, the essence of Belle’s story seems intact.

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Final Thoughts: I knew this film would be good, but I absolutely loved this film and one I’d definitely add to my Blu-ray collection. I always find the social class intricacies in period dramas deeply intriguing, but Belle adds more layers to that with the race and slavery issue, whilst keeping a love story at the core. I really think that even those who aren’t fond of this genre would find this moving and inspiring. An impressive sophomore effort from miss Assante, I sure hope continues to make more films in the future!


Have you seen Belle? I’d love to hear what you think.

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52 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: BELLE (2013)

  1. I’m a scifi fan, but period dramas are my guilty pleasure. I really want to see this movie. I’ve never seen a period film from this perspective. I also like the actress Gugu.

    1. Hi Mariah, welcome to FC! This is a period drama unlike any other, Austen-esque in vibe but offers a whole lot more. Gugu is lovely here and she’s a strong actress.

  2. This is a film that I’m thinking about seeing as I’ve heard good things about it though I’m not surprised that Tom Felton is once again playing a dick.

    1. Hi Steven! It certainly lives up to my already-lofty expectations. Ahah yeah Felton seems to be typecast, his character is so one-dimensional too.

  3. This is one I’ve been looking forward to, and I’m not much of a period piece film person, I admit. It’s also the one I hope to enjoy with my daughter, maybe even my son. Thanks for this.

    1. Hi Michael! Glad you’re willing to make an exception with Belle. You won’t be disappointed! I think your daughter would love this too, and certainly there are things the men in the audience can appreciate.

  4. Good review. It has some moments that hits its marks, and other times, where it doesn’t. However, the performances always stay good and consistent throughout.

    1. Hi Dan! I think the performances elevated the film so much, but then again I thought the script was good. Minor quibbles here and there but overall I loved it!

    1. I hope you see this on the big screen Cindy! You’ve seen Amazing Grace I take it? I loved that movie too, that’d make an excellent double feature I think.

  5. Haven’t seen a good period piece in a long while. Will have to check this one out.

    Ruth, thought you might want to check this out. Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) looks great in the part but sadly I’ve already seen this story before… you know?

    1. Oh I think I did see this trailer but yeah, not really that interested tho I like Tennant. Belle is definitely worth your while Dave, hope you’ll check it out.

  6. I saw this trailer a month ago and agree… I thought I have to see this! I love period dramas as well. Glad to hear that this met your expectations and turned out well. Great review Ruth!

    1. Hi Melissa! How’ve you been girl? Where’s the Toby pics you promised me 😉

      If you love period dramas, you MUST see this one. I think you’d enjoy Sam Reid as well, trust me.

      1. Hey girl hey!!! I did some Googling and I thought I bet she has seen all these. Trust me I have my eye out for you. I am going to comic con in SD too so I will keep my eyes peeled for anything Toby related!!! OMG Sam Reid is HOT HOT. Adding him to my new must watch list. We are so suckers for a hot british man with a beautiful accent.

        1. OMG!!! So so jealous you’re going to SDCC!!! I think the cast of Black Sails might be there. If so would you please track down Toby so I can live vicariously thru you?? I know I WILL meet him one day, I just knew it. I have met two of my crushes (well Gregory Peck’s daughter is as close as I could get to him as he’s already gone), so I know I will see Toby one day, ha..ha.. Oh and Sam Reid, he’s soooo hunky in Belle and he has a deep voice too, yum!!

          1. Well despite living in San Diego I have never been because it is always a pain to get tickets but this year I got tickets for Thursday and Sunday so we will see what’s going on those days. If I see Black Sails ummm…duh of course I will take a picture for you, even it is just a look alike wearing a Toby outfit. lol. Yes Sam Reid love love love him I am going to look for pictures right now. Thank you for bringing him to my attention.

                1. Oh right he does, but w/ a dreamy accent to boot 😉 I hope he gets more and more roles after this, same w/ Gugu who’s so gorgeous & talented.

    1. I don’t know if you’re into period dramas or not, but this one is worth a look even if you’re not. Yeah, the race relations is intriguing and the love story is quite beautiful, Fernando.

  7. Ted S.

    Nice review Ruth, as you know I’m not into period drama movies. I don’t know if I’ll ever see this one, unfortunately.

    1. I hear ya Ted. Tho if you’re to make an exception, this one is worth a look as it’s not the typical romantic period dramas.

  8. Nice review Ruth! Really glad you liked this as I know you were looking forward to it. I’m not the biggest fan of period dramas to be honest, so I doubt I’ll head to the cinema to see it but it’s one I may well check out at a later date.

    1. Hi Chris! I hope you’d at least give it a shot when it’s out on rental. There are some genres I’m not into but I’m always willing to make an exception if the story appeals to me. As I mentioned in my review, even non-period drama fans would appreciate this one I think, because of the social justice theme.

  9. Ooh I missed this review. I really liked this film. It accomplished a rare feat by being equal parts conventional and subversive. In my review I did mention that some of the dialogue was a bit predictable but I credit my obsession with period romantic dramas for that. I can’t wait to add it to my video collection.

    1. Hi Iba. I’m glad you loved this too. I don’t mind the predictable dialog, I still think it works here. I can’t wait to get the Blu-ray of this so I can watch it over and over 🙂

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