Monday, May 26, 2014

Belle (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Amma Asante (A Way of Life) tackles matters of social stratification and racism during the late 1700s in "Belle". The film is a luxuriant, hard hitting and poignant study on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an illegitimate bi-racial daughter of a Royal Navy officer, John Lindsay and her struggle for not just noble esteem, but human equality.

In an instant we are plunged in a realm of Dickens. All is damp, gray and brown. Captain Lindsay (Matthew Goode) rescues Belle as a child from an anonymous mass of forgotten children, promising a life of comfort and privilege.

All is not so.

The ladies of the house chatter snidely about her ethnicity like prejudiced poultry. The young adult Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) looks over her shoulder despite her satin surroundings. Her foster parent, Chief Justice William Murray (Tom Wilkinson) clearly adores her, but condescends that she cannot join the family at dinners.

Belle is treated as a sister by Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) but is placed in the carnivorous lion's den of hatred by the repulsive James Ashford (Tom Felton). Ashford is a monster who gives actual reptiles a bad name.

The buoyancy here is in the spirit of Belle who stays above the morass of misery with an almost objective aplomb.

To complicate matters, Murray is held to rule on a negligent ship that held slaves and has the power to either pull the plug on the flagrantly abusive ship, and its abominable human trafficking or keep it in business.

Belle becomes a covert investigator of sorts, uncovering slave documents all the while trapped in a preplanned marriage with the square headed and blank Lord Ashford (Alex Jennings). Belle is the calm center in the alternately toxic and nattering storm about money and fashion.

She alone has grace and a humanist awareness.

While parts of the "Belle" might mirror a Jane Austen melodrama, or even a Twilight with the dashing Mr. Davinier (Sam Reid) and Belle's heavenly melting eyes, we take it all in because of Belle's direct verve contained in the performance of  Mbatha-Raw.

One scene in particular stands above the rest:

Belle is leaning by a meadow when Felton's Ashford is absinthe with hate and dull envy. Belle exists at once as a progressive Pre-Raphaelite painting put into life, a new Ophelia for not just the past millennium but ours as well. As a force of restraint and magnetism, Belle and actress Gugu Mbatha-raw make a compellingly watchable, triumphant pair.

Write Ian at

No comments: