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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