Wednesday, May 21, 2014


To be totally honest, Belle wasn't the main event Monday night; Only Lovers Left Alive has reached the point in its run where it's only playing a couple of times a day and the 5pm show was right out, so I had to do the 9:45. Since I'm not about to leave the house and head to the theater at 9pm, it was going to be a double feature, and Belle was the other thing playing. Sure, I intended to see it at some point anyway - I liked Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Undercovers (and judging from its lack of presence on Amazon or Hulu, I'm the only person who remembers that show), it has an interesting premise, and looks nice. A night when I could do a double feature at the Coolidge without missing a whole Red Sox game.

It turned out to be the better movie of the night, though - admittedly, Only Lovers Left Alive is a bit of a tough slog at 10pm, but I genuinely found myself enjoying Belle. It's got enough issues that if I really cared about the star ratings that much, I might be considering dropping it down a notch, but I don't, so I'll just be good with how I enjoyed it more than its individual qualities perhaps merit.

Anyway, it was pretty good, although it turns out I missed it at IFFBoston for the wrong reason (for what it's worth, Fort Tilden was the wrong reason and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter was probably the right one). It's the sort of movie that sometimes feels like it's a little too deliberately built to be prestigious, but it works - it feels good to watch even when it's not striving to be entertaining - and there's certainly merit to that.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 May 2014 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (first-run, DCP)

I don't watch a lot of costume dramas or read the sort of classic romances that are this film's close relations, so I'm not sure how often they are focused on matters of ritual and plotting and how often they have weightier themes to them. In any case, they tend to be about the collision between what is proper and what is satisfying emotionally, which is certainly the engine driving Belle. It sometimes fits that description a bit too well, with the filmmakers occasionally having as much time reconciling such issues as their characters.

Things start when Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) brings the daughter he sired out of wedlock to live with relatives while he continues his career in the Navy, as one did in 1769 - although not when the mother was black, as is the case for young Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay. Still, Lord and Lady Marshfield (Tom Wilkinson & Emily Watson) have another niece in their care about Dido's age who could use a playmate, and it doesn't take long for their reservations to fade when they discover that she is a bright and charming girl. Even with that being the case, things have grown complicated when a decade or so has passed - Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is left out of formal occasions, and though she has received a fine inheritance, only Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) is being formally introduced to society. Dido has caught the eye of John Davinier (Sam Reid), the local vicar's son, who is studying law under Lord Marshfield. Davinier also has strong feelings about a case Marshfield is adjudicating, in which a slave ship threw its "cargo" overboard and sought to make an insurance claim.

The basic idea behind the film is simple-yet-interesting enough - take a genre and environment that has a certain sort of homogeneity so deeply ingrained that calling it an assumption rather understates the case and throw in an ethnic wild card - that it would be an interesting exercise even without the assurance in the opening titles that it was based on a true story. Where it sometimes runs into trouble is in how thoroughly it immerses itself in its setting from the start; viewers who need a refresher course in the rules and rituals of society in this time may find themselves a bit at sea, especially since arrangements at the manor are rather dependent on absent character. Once they are caught up, though, the film delivers on its promises, with plenty of sisterly affection, men who are kind and handsome but poor, matches that could advance relationships between families and those that could gain the dowryless Elizabeth security, stern but soft-hearted spinsters and ambitious matriarchs; how each of them reacts to Dido's darker skin and how she navigates situations as a result just heightens the pleasures of the genre.

Full review at EFC

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