Sunday, June 8, 2014


I was intrigued by the story behind the new movie BELLE. A portrait from the late 1700s of two lovely young English ladies, one a fair skinned blonde and the other a very dark skinned female of African descent. But they are portrayed as equals, as ladies of that time and place, i.e. England, which was making a lot of money then on the slave trade.

There are plenty of paintings from that era in which dark skinned people are portrayed but always as servants or slaves—never as ladies. I don't know if it was the writer, Misan Sagay, or someone else whose interest was drawn by the painting, but the story of it was researched leading to this exquisite film.

The quick description of the movie is a cross between TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE and DOWNTON ABBEY (it even has Penelope Wilton from DOWNTON in the role of the maiden aunt). But that might make you think it's a little familiar or predictable, and it's anything but. Maybe a better way to describe it is Jane Austen tackles race (along with her usual topics, class and the status of women back then).

The point is, to my taste at least, it is a spectacular success at bringing an historic period and its manners into a romantic, political and surprisingly original story we haven't heard this way before, as well as a typically brilliant English display of acting chops and costume perfection.

Among the actors that bolster the plot and the period reality with their talent is Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon (who I praised before on this blog for her work in A DANGEROUS METHOD) and Miranda Richardson (known mostly for her HARRY POTTER role and brilliantly shallow in this flick).

The director, who I hadn't heard of, Amma Asante, is, like her star, an English woman who happens also to be "black." She's to be credited for the mostly perfect cast, especially the brilliant casting of her lead, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (another of those exotic names that's almost as hard to figure out how to pronounce as my ancestors original Irish ones) and the level of performances, especially Mbatha-Raw, who took my breath away with her beauty and talent. In fact the movie is worth seeing just to watch her and her performance.

The only weak spot I could find—and you have to look close to see it, because in the context of the other brilliant acting and terrific dialogue and directing, you most probably won't even notice—is Sam Reid, who like Mbatha-Raw is mostly known in England for his work on TV. He doesn't quite completely live up to the role he's playing, nor the compellingly engaging acting of the rest of the cast. But he's good enough to keep from ruining it and to make his scenes with the amazing Mbatha-Raw pop anyway, she's so good.

Aw, go see it and let me know whether you agree or not that this is a movie well worth the money to watch on a big screen. In fact, I'd say unlike many films today, it's meant to be seen that way, like a real movie.


tpw said...

Dear M: I saw this in Atlanta with my sister last weekend. I agree that it's a beautiful-looking film & that Gu Gu M is beautiful and excellent in it, and that the rest of the cast (esp. the always good Tom Wilkinson) is also superb. My problem with the narrative, however, is that you more or less know within the first 5 or 10 minutes exactly where everything is going: Belle will wind up with the nice young vicar, Tom W will make the right ruling in the slave case, etc. And that predictability took something away from my appreciation of the movie.

Lally said...

You're a better man than I Gunga Din. I usually know from the first scene what's going to happen, having written screenplays for hire and studying them a lot to do that etc. but I didn't see it all working out as you did (and by the way I try not to reveal endings and resolutions in any movies I write about unless they're very old etc.) though I saw the possibility, but as with 12 YEARS A SLAVE, which I knew the outcome to because it was based on a true story written by the slave, plus the title pretty much gives it away, I still couldn't see every scene unfolding as they did, some I could, some not, as with BELLE, where there were many surprising moments for me even if I did suspect it would turn out as you said. But it's all a matter of personal taste in the end, because I was almost sobbing as BELLE unfolded, expected or not, because I kept seeing my first and truest love, a young beautiful black woman, and myself in the story and was overwhelmed with the memories of the harsh realities we faced and suffered in merely 1960 when they were going through it in this move in the late 1700s! I kept getting choked up over Belle's breakthroughs and courage. Ah, just becoming more sentimental with every aging day.

tpw said...

From IMDB: Gugu, short for Gugulethu, Xhosa for "Our Pride," was born in the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, England. Her mother, Anne Raw, is a caucasian, English nurse, and her father, Patrick Mbatha, is a black, South African doctor. Her parents separated when she was a year old...." And if she were to go on tour with Lady Ga Ga, it would be the Gu Gu Ga Ga Tour.

And please stop calling me Gunga Din.

Lally said...

If you went with them, it would be the Gu Gu Ga Ga Gun Ga Tour...

Gary Stromberg said...

Michael, thank you for this recommendation. Saw this exquisite film this afternoon, solely on your recommendation, and boy was I glad I did! It's everything you said it was, and more. Each scene was like a Vermeer painting, and the script contained some interesting and provocative insights on race. A truly remarkable film. Thanks again!

Lally said...

Happy you love it as much as I did Gary. And love the Vermeer comparison.