Screenwriter Misan Sagay includes every conceivable theme in her script while forgetting to give the characters depth, motivation, distinct qualities, or even realistic dialogue.
There is a very disconcerting trend pervading recent “issues films” that doesn’t bode well for cinema and how these films should be received by critics and audiences. Films like The Help, Dallas Buyer’s Club, and even the documentary How to Survive a Plague all address very serious social and historical issues, but ignore fundamental filmmaking components such as effective storytelling, competent directing, and a sense of structural balance. Belle, directed by Amma Asante and based on an incredible true story, is just another film in which didactic preaching about a social issue is expected to overshadow the horribly written script and incompetent direction.
Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was born in the late 18th century, the illegitimate daughter of a white Royal Navy Admiral and the black slave with whom he fell in love. Dido, as she is called, is raised by her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and her great-aunt Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson), straddling two worlds, neither of whom full accepts her due to her mixed race. She is well-born based on her family’s social position, but her dark skin is a constant reminder that slaves are still seen by many as less than human.
As she and her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) come of age, they plan to begin meeting potential husbands. Dido, though, is told she is unlikely to ever marry, because any man who would marry a mixed-race woman is not worthy of the social status her name gives her. Confused and punished for her skin color and her name, Dido seeks answers to questions she is not supposed to ask. In the process, she becomes acquainted with Lord Mansfield’s law student John Davinier (Same Reid), whose passion for the abolition of slavery and kind-hearted nature appeal to Dido. Though they are from vastly different social classes, they find themselves unable to resist the temptation to be together.
Belle is another startling reminder of the horrors of slavery and its insidious effect on society and people’s minds. Sadly, the movie also crams in a number of other issues, including the role of women in aristocratic society, the wealth gap between the rich and the poor, the injustice of social status, the merits and evils of capitalism, as well as marrying for security versus marrying for love. Belle is a buffet of ideas, but the audience is allowed only to taste each dish, never to fully consume any of them. Screenwriter Misan Sagay exhausts her skill, including every conceivable theme in her script while forgetting to give the characters depth, motivation, distinct qualities, or even realistic dialogue. Every character speaks in inane platitudes which, while great fodder for the trailer, are embarrassing when strung together in the final film.
As the director, Asante fails to give the film any life, instead relying on tired Jane Austen settings and a generic, strings-heavy score that fails to make the audience feel any kind of emotion. Asante’s characters are all stiff and stuffy, not because that is how people composed themselves during that period, but because she has no idea what to do with her actors or which placement best conveys the (underdeveloped) emotions of each scene.
Thankfully for the audience’s sake, Mbatha-Raw is quite good as Dido, allowing her inner frustration and turmoil to show through without devolving into melodrama. Mbatha-Raw has a strong and confident presence on screen, but allows Dido to have passages of complete vulnerability as she struggles to find even one moment’s comfort in the world. The rest of the cast, even the usually great Wilkinson and Watson, give flat, wooden performances. Each actor is coached to give a performance worthy of a retirement home’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, but without the humor. | Matthew Newlin