Sunday, September 14, 2014

No Surprise: NO GOOD DEED

No Good Deed is a movie about a woman trapped in her own home with a stranger she slowly realizes is a terrorizing psychopath. More accurately, it’s a movie about two great actors stuck in a lousy thriller. Taraji P. Henson plays the woman. Idris Elba plays the psychopath. These are talented, charismatic actors, who have done great work in the past and surely will again. But the movie is thin, obvious, empty, and gives them characters with one-note dynamics and little of interest to do. They’re producers on this picture, so you can’t feel too sorry for them, but if this is the best material they could find, they deserve better.

It’s a rote, unsurprising and straightforward woman in danger movie that hauls out all the old tropes we’ve seen many times before. Even the Surprise Twist, which is really more of a mildly intriguing development or a new piece of evidence, isn’t too surprising. Henson, a well-off former prosecutor, is home with her two small children on a dark and stormy night while her lawyer husband (Henry Simmons) is away. Elba’s a working class murderer who escapes from prison after being turned down for parole, stops to kill his ex-girlfriend (Kate del Castillo), and then crashes his stolen car. He walks to Henson’s house, where she lets him use her phone and her first aid kit. That’s her good deed. It does not go unpunished.

At first he’s nice, sipping tea, making small talk with a flirtatious neighbor (Leslie Bibb), and complimenting the kids on their cuteness. But soon enough he’s maneuvered the situation into something far more dangerous. He’s cut the phone lines. (No cell phones?) He’s hidden the knives. (No blunt objects?) He glowers and stalks while Henson pleads and plans. Aimee Lagos’s script plays out more or less how you’d think, with Henson scheming to protect her kids and alert the authorities, while Elba cuts off escape routes and heightens the tension until the climactic violent act brings it all to an end.

All the while it’s uninvolving and obvious, alternating between uncomfortably brutally menacing and totally dull. An intrusive score hammers crescendos of clattering strings and brassy bass with every moderately startling burst of anger or violence. Director Sam Miller, who worked with Elba on their BBC show Luther, can’t even trust the audience to remember something from a few minutes earlier, layering benign dialogue with flashbulb flashbacks into scenes plenty off-kilter to begin with. We remember Elba strangled, and then bludgeoned, his ex. That’s what makes his intrusion in the nice woman’s home so scary. We don’t need to be reminded.

On the surface of this setup is fairly obvious potential. The movie could easily have said something heightened and interesting about gender, or class, or race, or domestic violence, but it can’t even muster up the energy for low genre pleasures, let alone anything loftier. The movie has two overqualified leads, a sturdy premise, and proceeds to do nothing. Thinking back over the plotting, I not only picked out the plot holes, but I found myself marveling at how little happens, and how little I cared about what did manage to appear. This is not good. It appeals to the same impulse of interest a junk paperback in a grocery store spinner engenders, along with the same hollow disappointment when it fails to provide even fleeting empty-calorie distraction.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Digital Killed the Video Star: THE CONGRESS

Ari Folman’s The Congress is a rare movie that starts with a nugget of inspiration and then imagines faster, imagines farther, until we’ve arrived at something we’ve never seen before. By the end, it’s far lovelier, messier, and more haunting than I had expected. It’s a mixture of sharp live-action and fluid animation, a hallucinatory philosophical science fiction dark comedy of sharp emotional pangs and chilly unease, a swirl of influences very loosely adapted from a novel by Solaris author Stanislaw Lem. It confidently becomes something singularly mesmerizing.

The film begins as a bone-dry showbiz satire, set in a near-future Hollywood where computer technology has advanced to such a degree that studio executives are contemplating a post-human business model. No more need for celebrities and all their attendant foibles. Instead, movie stars will be richly rewarded for a one-time full-body, full-emotion scan that will be uploaded for all eternity into the companies’ databases. Their forever young virtual doppelgangers can act in whatever projects the studio desires while the real people go off to be forgotten, never to act again.

This is the offer presented to Robin Wright in the film’s opening stretch. She was once in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, and lately has been turning up in a stream of fascinating roles. Here she plays Robin Wright, an actress who was once in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, but has found the stream of good roles dried up. It’s an alternate universe version of herself, an out-of-work actress living in a former airplane hanger with her teenage kids (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Sami Gayle). They talk, fly kites, eat meals, and care for her son’s medical problems as diagnosed by a kindly doctor (Paul Giamatti)

Folman’s approach to these early scenes is patient and considered, letting conversations play out in long takes precisely framed. The family dynamics are tenderly felt, while scenes of showbiz are calculating power plays. Her well-intentioned agent (Harvey Keitel) stops by and begs her to take a meeting with the head of Miramount Studios (Danny Huston). After some negotiation (she won’t allow her digital incarnation be used for sci-fi, porn, or Holocaust dramas), she’s uploaded. It’s a masterful sequence of sci-fi light and shadow, flickering raw emotions captured forever in a geodesic flashbulb dome while Keitel’s warm voice delivers a heartfelt monologue about the way showbiz sells people for the public’s consumption.

We skip ahead 20 years. What follows is an earnest expression of identity and technology, of who we are and how our relationship to evolving societal machinery may change us. To renew her contract, Wright goes to a fancy resort hotel in what’s called the “Animated Zone.” People can ingest chemicals that create shared delusions, Entertainment Industrial Complex-approved pharmaceutical fantasies. The film becomes a piece of surrealist animation, full of shape-shifting landscapes where size, speed, and distance are a matter of mind over matter. The inhabitants walking around can make themselves into whatever appearance they desire.

The film explodes with color and design as if it is Satoshi Kon’s Paprika dreamworlds by way of a hypothetical post-modern Hieronymus Bosch and Ralph Bakshi co-directed Silly Symphony. There’s nothing consistent except inconsistencies, an entertainment bacchanal of fluid distractions in a state of flux. On giant screens we catch glimpses of Wright’s digital double’s films – beamed directly into the brains of these revelers. She’s a superhero in one. In another she’s aping a famous Dr. Strangelove shot. But no one recognizes the real deal walking amongst them. Everyone is carousing in this animated fantasy playland, but no one’s really connecting. They’re alone together.

Folman’s work in imagining this future of virtual reality hallucinatory living is at once liberating and debilitating. He imagines a future where people can manipulate their appearances however they wish, free at last from constructs of race, gender, orientations, or disabilities, and able to simply live as a group without prejudices or fear. No matter how you’re born, you can huff a chemical and be whatever you wish. And yet few seem to be aware of the others with which they interact. Everyone’s an avatar. Wright meets a seemingly helpful man (Jon Hamm), and they strike up a relationship of some kind as the animation world is turned upside down by talk of revolution. (Some shout, “We’re going to be real again!”) But she never sees his real, un-animated face. We don't either.

In the future of The Congress, everyone is allowed to live in their own subjective reality, cultivating their persona and constructing their own bubbles of infotainment. Sounds familiar. It’s our present-day struggles with technology reflected and refracted, stretched to absurdity and made frighteningly obvious. Furthermore, it’s a movie that starts with sharp jabs at Hollywood’s commodification of persons before drifting off into the future, implicating us all in its haze of existential amorphousness. Culture in this film is poisonous, turning real performers into ultimate studio-system puppets, malleable, compliant, consumable – sometimes literally so. One sniff and you’re Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, Thriller-era Michael Jackson, or Leone-era Clint Eastwood. You can drink celebrity, taste persona, and feel total possession over stars and their iconography while living your dreams and never waking up.

This film is a feat of imagination that dares to be a weird, expressionistic, emotional view of the future. It moves with the logic of a dream and the undertow of a nightmare, full of sights so striking and unexpected that they colonized my imagination and left me dazed. Wright falls into this future deeper and deeper, losing herself to better find herself, to reclaim her identity, and find her way back to her family, or what’s left of it, as best she can. There’s a deep longing for connection, for purpose, for sense. It’s woozy, disorienting, and effective. “How do I know when I’m dreaming?” Wright asks. It’s a good question, and one not easily answered.

Folman, whose previous feature, the semi-autobiographical Waltz with Bashir, was a similarly deeply felt animation experiment, here paints gorgeously strange images of shifting bodies with wiggling limbs, planes flapping their wings, fields turning into waves, vials of chemical bliss and disorienting subjectivity. Rare cuts back to live action send the head spinning. The film’s imagery swam in my mind so strongly and vividly that I left feeling like I was waking up from a peculiar, personal, and powerful vision.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


David Wain, the writer-director behind Role Models and Wanderlust, could’ve made a great romantic comedy. Instead, with They Came Together, he decided to kick a good genre while it’s down. He’s lucky it’s pretty funny, or at least funny enough. The movie, which he wrote with frequent collaborator Michael Showalter, hunts down and obliterates every rom-com convention it can find, turning unspoken genre mechanics into literal lines of dialogue. Cliché perched on the precipice of preposterous is tipped over, embracing the ridiculous in a breezy parodic style. We may not have had a great rom-com in many years, but this mercilessly satiric one is intent on purposely resuscitating each and every musty old convention, turning them inside out, and finding the inherent absurdities within.

In theory, it’s a funny idea. And so it is, at least some of the time. For all the conceptual cleverness, it plays too often like a movie that’s mad you might like You’ve Got Mail. At least the parody film is a genre as moribund as the rom-com, so it comes across as good-natured ribbing from a similarly impoverished cultural place. Does They Came Together single-handedly revive two imperiled genres? Not quite. But it’s a great start that Wain’s film is the kind of sneakily appealing cerebral/stupid comedy that had me smiling even when I was not quite sure if it was working. It’s appealing, with loopily silly concepts and charm for days.

It helps that the leads are Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, two of the most delightful people in TV and movies today. With winning smiles and easygoing casual rapport, it’s always pleasant to spend time watching them interact. They could pull off a real rom-com, even a terrible one, on charm alone. So here, as they play a cutesy entrepreneur and a sneakily softhearted corporate drone, they break past the deliberately bland anonymity of their clichéd characters. Even though the movie is a relentless send-up of twee Hollywood True Love falsehoods, stretching those conventions to absurdity and beyond, I still found myself wanting to see them get together in the end. Go figure.

As they go through all the predictable Meet Cute bickering, falling-in-love montages, dramatic misunderstandings, tearful breakups, and last-minute chases to reconciliation, they speak the subtext in flatly stupid dialogue. But they deliver it as if it’s sparkling repartee. When Rudd plays a hilariously phony basketball game with his diverse group of friends, the advice they offer him makes clear they’re stand-ins for thematic points. One buddy says, “Marriage is great! That’s the point I represent.” Poehler’s presented as the typical klutz, prone to falling down flights of stairs, and a flighty romantic, eagerly flying into a montage of trying on clothes that lasts so long Rudd leaves the scene. Later, a makeout session is so exaggeratedly passionate they walk around the room, lips locked, knocking over everything in their path.

Square clichés are played so very straight, even as they’re knocked askew. The couple bonds over the blandest of generalizations. They’re shocked by the fact they both enjoy “fiction books” and have grandmas. As if those are rare loves in the average person’s life. Friends and family (in a huge ensemble that includes Ellie Kemper, Bill Hader, Christopher Meloni, Ed Helms, Max Greenfield, Melanie Lynskey, and more) only exist as reflections of the leads’ needs and fears. So far, so typical, but it’s imbued with an off-kilter energy that builds up the artificiality of the genre’s worst tendencies.

That’s why weirdness, slowly taking over entire sequences, creeps in around the edges: a framing device in which a dinner party is essentially held hostage by the couple relaying their self-centered story to a pair of friends; a bit of horseplay that ends in a man falling out a window; a moment in which a pompous boss poops his Halloween costume and desperately tries to hide the evidence; a scene that finds Poehler and Rudd angrily storming away from each other in the same direction, following each other for blocks. Wain takes simple, obvious scenes and stretches them so far past the breaking point it’d be hard not to admire the effort. Look at the endless loop of a conversation Rudd has with a bartender as it starts simple, grows stupid, and then continues, repeating itself until it's one of the funniest scenes of the year.

They Came Together invites likable strangeness under its umbrella of tropes, and then plays it relatively safe. On the one hand, there’s a great eagerness to how knowing the movie is, gently elbowing the audience in the ribs, saying, “see what we did there?” On the other hand, who isn’t aware of the standard rom-com structure and pitfalls, especially of the 20-year-old Ryan/Hanks variety from which this script takes its most obvious cues? That’s beside the point. This isn’t an expose of cliché. It starts off mocking the subgenre, but the bite fades into affection. That’s just fine. The leads are too likable and the formula so sturdily deployed, even as it’s undercut, to be a critique of the rom-com. It’s to 90’s romances what Wain’s cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer was to 80’s summer camp movies. That is to say, Wain is awfully good at creating sly and goofy spoof revivals of types of movies no one is making anymore.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


A good horror movie could be made out of the catacombs beneath Paris, but As Above, So Below is not that movie. It descends into the real underground cemetery where, since 1810 or so, there really are orderly piles of human remains from the 6 million bodies placed there when the burial grounds closer to the surface got too crowded. I can say from first hand experience that it is creepy down there, dark, quiet, and filled with stacks of skulls and femurs of long-dead Parisians. The emergency exit sign is merely a green arrow pointing backwards from whence you came. There’s plenty of real eeriness to be found, so the movie’s intention to add a dusting of supernatural disorientation seems foolproof. But, boy, was I wrong. Director John Erick Dowdle, from a screenplay co-written with his brother Drew, has found a great location and in it stages almost nothing worth caring about.

The threadbare plot involves nothing characters and skimpy scares. It’s a found footage contraption that follows a young urban archeologist (Perdita Weeks) who wants to finish her late father’s search for Nicolas Flamel’s legendary Philosopher’s Stone, the exact same MacGuffin put to good use in the first Harry Potter. Suspecting it is located hundreds of feet below Flamel’s grave, she gets a cameraman (Edwin Hodge), an ex-colleague (Ben Feldman), and a trio of twentysomething French kids (François Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar) who love to explore the tunnels and caves just beyond the catacombs open to the public. We go below the city with the group, wobbling our way down narrow passageways, past tour guides, past thrill seekers, past cultists, until they’re well and truly lost. Along the way, they see weird visions and hear things that shouldn’t be. A phone rings. A baby cries. A piano sits half buried in a wall. Creepy.

It’s unfortunate that the whole scavenger hunt is visually unpleasant, with some of the queasiest shaky cam I’ve ever seen. At least that makes it marginally more believable than usual that the characters themselves are grabbing the shots on the fly. It’s entirely incomprehensible the further it goes. I have no clue what happened most of the time. They go in circles, fall down holes, splash through shallow water, find mildly unsettling befuddlement, and repeat it all over again. What do they find? How do the survivors escape? It’s hard to say. The scarier things get for the characters, the wilder the camerawork. The most effective scene is the most still, a claustrophobic moment with a pile of bones filling half the screen and a wall dominating the other, while a character stuck between them hyperventilates.

At some points, though, what’s appearing on the screen is practically experimental, building what is ostensibly a dumb narrative film out of blurry moving colors, flashing lights, half-glimpsed human figures, sudden jolts, shouts, and sound design that sounds like a cave in at the Foley studio. It is often said that the art of restraint makes for the best horror, when audiences can fill in gaps and summon up the dread of what might be around the next dark corner. And it is true that not seeing something scary or catching only a glimpse can be powerfully unsettling. But here when a character screams, “Did you see that?!”, the only possible answer is, “No.” I was never scared, only slightly nauseated by all the wobbling camerawork.

It’s a totally empty genre exercise that has absolutely nothing going on thematically or in its characterizations. There’s only the faintest glimmer of local color to the Parisian locales and supporting cast. Why bother going to Paris if you’re going to bury it under the ugliest, cheapest filming style? And most of the time, you can’t even tell they’re supposed to be in the catacombs. They’re panicking their way through anonymous dark rooms. Worst of all, it’s just not scary. The blank characters continually descend through a maze of bones and limestone as the movie whips itself into a nonsensical visual mess that fails to connect with the genuine claustrophobic creepiness that actually exists in its chosen location. Unlike Dowdle's minor elevator-set horror fun in Devil, his previous film, As Above, So Below totally squanders its close-quarters potential.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


A neat little thriller dressed up in 70’s clothing, Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime is a humble charmer coasting on genre pleasures. After a summer of big digital things crashing into other big digital things and muscled men standing around slugging it out while feeling bad about it, how nice to settle into a small scale heist that twists with a sense of humor. Here the women are strong, the men are stupid clever, and the dupes are below average. Even when blindfolded and kidnapped, bored Detroit housewife Jennifer Aniston is still in more control of the situation than you’d think, while the men who caught her spin their wheels, befuddled by how sideways a simple extortion has gone.

The nifty plotting is lifted wholesale from the Elmore Leonard novel The Switch, keeping his ear for breezily laconic pulp dialogue and fine sense of darkly comic thriller plotting. The kidnappers are Ordell (Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def) and Louis (John Hawkes). If those characters sound familiar, it’s because they were also key criminal elements in Tarantino’s 1997 Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown, where Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro played them. That film is a great crime picture full of tremendous performances and Tarantino’s finest filmmaking to date. Of course Life of Crime isn’t nearly as good as Jackie Brown. That it manages to be its own agreeable thing with faint pleasing echoes of that earlier film instead of a flat out impersonating prequel is a nice surprise. Schechter doesn’t push too hard, keeping the proceedings sharp and quick.

It’s fun to watch Aniston struggle to outsmart the men holding her captive as they try to get money out of her rich husband (Tim Robbins), especially once it becomes clear he won’t pay up. He’s out of town with his mistress (Isla Fisher). Getting a threatening call from a stranger promising to make it so he never sees his wife again is sort of a blessing. That throws everyone in a loop. Aniston tries to keep herself alive. Fisher lounges around in a bikini, trying to keep her man from paying up. Bey and Hawke try to keep Aniston cooped up with a slobby neo-Nazi (Mark Boone Junior) while they rethink their plans. It’s one quickly paced complication after another as the gears turn and a wry bumbling crime drama tips towards dark farce without tipping all the way over.

Period detail is abundant and charming, quite intentionally drawing a connection between this and small crime pictures of the era. The source material was first published in 1978, and it’s not a stretch to imagine a Walter Matthau circa Charley Varrick or Karen Black circa The Outfit appearing in a contemporaneous adaptation, were such a thing to have happened. This is undeniably a modern film harkening back to an older way of doing these kinds of pictures, but the feeling is a pleasant approximation. The direction is a throwback to a crisp and clear style. The cinematography by Eric Alan Edwards is simple and grainy. The crime plotting is character driven and cleverly executed, a nice balance. It knows a Leonard story isn’t about what happens, but how it happens and who has what to say about it.

The ensemble is perfectly calibrated for a well-balanced blend of danger and dopey grins. (I haven’t even mentioned a hilarious subplot featuring Will Forte as Aniston’s panicked lover who has to decide whether to report her missing and reveal their affair or ignore it and hope nothing too bad happens to her.) The performers play well together, crackling their competing goals against each other as plots diverge, and stumbling blocks send everyone angling for their best possible outcome. Crosses, double-crosses, and strange bedfellows are the name of the game. It’s an enjoyable Leonard adaptation, one of the few that get his tricky tone and twisty stories right, and, in its humble way, probably the best since the brief 90’s heyday of its kind.


Starred Up is a tough sentimental father-son reunion story set entirely in a prison. It’s an unusual fit, the caged brutality grabbing peculiar tenderness while leeching menace into its softer spots. In terms of other contemporary prison-set entertainment, it’s not nearly as softhearted and diverse as Orange is the New Black or as hardnosed and pained as A Prophet. It carefully occupies a tricky middle ground, balancing between a desire to hang back and observe a prison’s inner workings and a plot-driven need to push emotional buttons with currents of conflicts. It’s a surprisingly effective mix.

The film opens on a teenage inmate (Jack O’Connell) transferred from a UK juvenile facility into a bigger, more dangerous adult prison. He’s been moved – “starred up” is the term for this transfer – because of his violent temper. Sure enough, the first thing we see him do, after a strip search and walk to his new cell, is carefully turn a toothbrush into a shiv and hide it in a light fixture. It’s not long at all before he’s knocking fellow prisoners unconscious and picking fights with guards, who storm into his cell in full riot gear. He still manages to get the better of them, beating them with the legs of a table he’s flipped over, pinning one against a wall with a makeshift weapon. This encounter ends with the boy needing to be talked out of biting a guard, paused mid-chomp.

We soon learn the boy’s now in the same prison as his estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn). His old man is a shifty character, well connected with the prison’s underground politics. The boy’s violent unpredictability is making him a target from administrators and vicious criminal elements alike. A mixture of fatherly frustration, machismo, jealousy, and fear animates the older man’s relationship with his son. There are years of resentment and damage between them, but as they try to reconcile in such an extreme context, there’s real poignancy to their fumbling. The boy is pushed into an anger management group run by a kind psychotherapist (Rupert Friend). It might help. His father wants him to succeed. But it’s hard to tell if the man has his son’s best interests at heart. There’s no trust there, from either side.

Director David Mackenzie creates an enclosed sense of verisimilitude, free of many jokes and tropes more openly exploitative prison films fall back on. Instead, there’s an unflinching tension as the inherent ugly reality of the location becomes the backdrop for a pulpy, nakedly emotional story of a broken pair of men, bound by blood, hesitantly, tentatively, forging an understanding. Shooting in a real decommissioned prison from a screenplay by Jonathan Asser, who once worked as a prison therapist, the film takes on a close feeling of loud noises and clanging ambient echoes as the dangers of a location built on systematic struggles of violence and power become palpable.

But it’s the powerful and convincing performances that truly bring the world to life. The ensemble of rough men speaks in thick accents with sometimes-impenetrable slang vocabularies. (The press notes include a “Prison Speak” glossary.) They’re lively and convincing, uncomfortably intimidating presences surrounding our leads. O’Connell and Mendelsohn bring a forceful history to their roles. I bought them as a long distant father and son pairing, uneasy about their new positions, forced into close quarters by their legal circumstances and into competition by competing places in the prison hierarchy. O’Connell, in a compellingly charismatic wounded smolder, brings a livewire violent possibility to his scenes, which makes his humbled silences and quiet revelations all the more surprising. Mendelsohn delivers another of his dangerously squirrely weirdoes, but there’s a pained compassion here as well.

Because the characters are as convincing as their world, it’s easier to go along with its moments of same-old-same-old prison process and father-son tension. I believed in the reality, this place, and these people, which helps sell the truth of their emotions as the realism gives way to elements both pulpy and sentimental as the story resolves. I’m not generally one to go for prison movies, though A Prophet seemed like something of a masterpiece at the time, and is due a revisit by me. But Starred Up has a good hook and uses it to tell a solid relationship drama in an unusual setting, letting some fresh emotions into what could’ve been only a suffocating cell of cliché.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pride and Prejudices: BELLE

Bracingly sharp, Amma Asante’s Belle is a lovely character study and handsome period piece that navigates its complexities with invigorating intelligence and dexterous empathy. Set in 18th century England and based on a true story, it tells of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a mixed-race child of Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). She was raised in his absence by his aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson), on a gorgeous estate. Freed from a life of slavery by virtue of her father’s station in life, she’s still trapped by the color of her skin.

As she grows older, Dido questions the social order, asking why she’s too high class to dine with the maids, and yet too low to dine with guests. Her inheritance gives her independent wealth, a luxury many women, including her close cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), do not have. Dido does not need to marry for rank or income. She’s lucky, and yet stuck. Women are property no matter the color, not all slaves, but the well-to-do are stuck in a gilded cage of societal rules and expectations.

The film is stimulating as it gracefully turns circles around issues of race, gender, and class. It illuminates a time and place, deftly laying out the reasons for Dido’s circumstances, a rigid social structure that keeps women and people of color oppressed. Her uncle is the highest judge in the land, hearing the case of a slave ship that dumped its human cargo overboard and is now suing their insurers who refuse to compensate for the damages. Through this legal argument, brought into their house by his prospective pupil (Sam Reid), Dido is drawn into larger social awareness of the struggles of people who share her color.

She’s also growing keenly aware of the struggles of her sex, as she and her cousin are of age to be courted. Her cousin draws the attentions of a miserable racist wretch (Tom Felton) with a pushy, gossiping mother (Miranda Richardson), scrabbling to improve their family’s rank through marriage. Her other son (James Norton) is drawn to Dido, who knows not what to do with circumstances she was hardly expecting. Together, the girls have the blessing of belonging to a respected family, but Dido's difficulties are unique and hers alone.

It is in many ways a traditional period piece, with beautiful gowns, ornate sets, a lush orchestral score, and fastidious design, a dash of Austen romance here, a bit of Dickensian social commentary there. But Amma Asante’s writing and direction is uncommonly assured, well written, wonderfully photographed, and briskly paced. It lays out an argument for basic rights for women and people of color by having its historical characters grappling with these questions literally and explicitly throughout the course of the plot. They stand as symbols of the argument – gossiping racists, sniveling misogynists, noble activists, brooding legal scholars – and yet never appear to be merely constructs of a debate come to life.

The writing is in a clever, elevated Merchant-Ivory style, wittier and lively, full of fantastically droll asides, tremendous personality in all the supporting parts (including a small, choice turn for Penelope Wilton) and rich with evocative subtext. And the plot and theme go hand in hand, stirring and resonant social consciousness informed by character every step of the way. And what remarkable characters! All are colorfully brought to life with fine, full performances memorable in personality and conflict. Dido, especially, is imbued with great humanity by Mbatha-Raw, whose performance is wisely situated between privilege and disadvantage, open curiosity and wounded cynicism, hopeful romance and pragmatic resignation.

The movie so vividly and convincingly sketches in a portrait of her world, blessed with wealth and advantage tempered by the prejudice of a power structure that restricts women’s choices and confined the mother she never knew to a life of slavery. The filmmaking is tenderly attuned to the nuances of its lead performance. There’s a remarkable scene in which Dido’s suitor tells her that she’s so lucky he’s willing to overlook the curse of color her mother passed down to her. Her eyes well up with the faintest pained mistiness, and yet her proper smile never quivers or falters.

Assante unfailingly illuminates such breathtaking moments of emotional and psychological nuance. Unlike 12 Years a Slave, which summoned up detailed historical horror with unflinching punishment and cruelty, the better to make us wince and feel it, Belle goes about its effect in a tremendously inviting and empathetic way, making us feel the pointed sting of rejection, the quick gasp of love, the heartache of internalized oppression. In a scene late in the picture where Dido dares sneak out to see a man who may love her for who she is – all of who she is – there’s a trembling insert shot, no more than a split second, of her neck, a nervous tensing. Earlier, we saw them meet in a garden, a late night happenstance that also found another insert shot, a hand on a hip, a sharp intake of breath.

We see this sharp observation and warm compassion in scenes of dialogue between many combinations of characters in this ensemble as people slowly figure out how best to reconcile their notions of right and wrong with the rules of the society at the time, how best to do the right thing. The movie sits closely, attentively with its characters, making them flesh and blood human beings treated with understanding and compassion. In doing so, it casts light not just on history, but on modern tensions and fears, core dehumanizing inequalities that go by different names, but linger, no matter how circumstances may have changed in the meantime. I found the film completely engaging, expressively smart, and deeply moving.

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