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Belle (AF)


Stars: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Tom Felton, James Norton, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Lauren Julien-Box

Director: Amma Asante

You certainly cannot fault this ‘based on a true story’ costumed saga of an illegitimate mixed-race girl, the daughter of a British naval officer who left her to be brought up by his noble English in his stately home in 18th century London. The uncle just happens to be the Lord Chief Justice of England, thus allowing screenwriter Misan Sagay to hit the PC button hard with a second integrated storyline about the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.

Belle definitely wears its heart on its sleeve.

You can see it beating hard throughout an extravagantly detailed period movie that’s drenched in celluloid sincerity and almost certainly destined to bore future generations of schoolchildren.

It’s the kind of overdressed, overdone and overacted period piece usually served up by BBC as a serial offering on television over several Sundays. It can’t fail to entice those American cinemagoers who enjoy watching lavishly costumed period pieces in the proven style of television’s Masterpiece Theatre.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw scores well as the much put-upon mulatto lass seeking love and justice, despite a romantic storyline that reeks of Jane Austen and everything that that cliché implies. If you want a strong expose of racial and social injustice, I’d suggest watching 12 Years a Slave.

For reasons which presumably made sense to her but which made Belle even more unendurable to watch, director Amma Asante appears to have allowed Wilkinson deliver his stagey, rather too often embarrassingly hammy performance in the manner of the villain of a touring repertory stage melodrama who is determined to reach every corner of the largest theatre in the world and keep the audience awake. It’s certainly a ‘performance’ in every sense of the word.

But it’s stagey in the extreme and eminently overdone for the cinema.

The costumes are attractive (and notably impressive in the wig-heavy climax that sees slavery getting a well-deserved beating from the law) and competently filled by a competent supporting cast that includes Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton and Emily Watson.

Almost inevitably, British lottery payers, under the guidance of the British Film Institute, supported Belle: so how does it feel to be a (unconsulted) film producer?

(And now for something completely useless. The director's name 'Asante'is also the word for 'Thank You' in Swahili).

Regrettably, I cannot find it in me to thank her for having had to watch Belle.

Better luck, next time.

Alan Frank

USA 2014. UK Distributor: 20th Century Fox (Fox Searchlight). Tchnicolor.
104 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 12A.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 10 Jun 2014