They just don’t make movies like Belle anymore. Kind of.Classical period pieces still exist and sometimes they even find success (Pride & Prejudice, Les Miserables), but to try and make a period piece that can appeal to those young enough to not get AARP pamphlets in the mail is a risky business prospect. Pretty much all major period pieces these days, including the two mentioned above, are based off of something that’s already popular, other examples being The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina.
But even these films also have big stars and big budgets to draw in crowds. Also, save for maybe Lincoln, these films all rely heavily on a flashy, modern sense of edginess to inject more excitement into a niche type of film that is usually seen as a stuffy, old person experience.
Belle doesn’t give a crap about appealing to the masses; it’s unapologetically old-fashioned. It has all the powdered wigs, corsets, and fancy late 1700s British dialect you could ever want. It doesn’t have any truly big stars (sorry Tom Wilkinson and Malfoy, it’s the truth). Of course, it is, like the other films mentioned, an adaptation. But it’s so hardcore that it’s based on a freaking painting. This is a movie adapted from a painting from 1779, people!
While I joke, it’s kind of a shame that very few people, especially my age, would think about seeing something like this if it doesn’t have someone like Leo in it. But Belle is a very good movie, which tells the likely highly-fabricated story of a real life half-black young woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle, who grew up in the house of a powerful judge. Dido is played by British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a name that would probably make Chiwetel Ejiofor say, “damn, that is an African-sounding name.”
Her character is one of the most put-upon I can remember seeing in a long while. She’s an incredibly unfortunate number of things to be in Britain in the late 1700s — an illegitimate black female adopted by a family of dignified white gentlemen and gentlewomen. As you can imagine, this causes marginalization within her family, the bigotry from the outside world, and an existential crisis within herself. She conveys these numerous conflicts with nuance, and at times, raw emotional power befitting her last name. She’s great.
The supporting cast is also really good, with Tom Felton basically reprising his Harry Potter role as evil dick, and Tom Wilkinson as Dido’s great uncle, revealing just as much complexity as Mbatha-Raw herself. But it’s the writing that really allows these multiple layers to come through. The script has an uncanny knack for saying the right thing at the right times, so that conversations are punctuated with emotional gut punches. You may see some of them coming, but due to the talented actors’ spot-on delivery, it doesn’t take away from their power.
The best thing about the movie is how it perfectly weaves together its different plot threads into a coherent whole. A bulk of the movie is devoted to the fairly fleshed-out relationships between Dido and her white cousin/sister and two potential love interests. At the same time, her great uncle is a judge who is dealing with a case of murdered slaves that could end up profoundly effecting slavery going forward. Here, the intimate family drama is given a sense of wider historical importance, and they are blended together seamlessly.
Unfortunately, there are times that the dialogue falters. For example, people keep asking why there are so many restrictions on Dido, even though its pretty obvious given who she is, where she is, and what she looks like. Her conflict, though dynamic, is sometimes treated with repetitive conversations about living in a society where formalities often overrides free will. In these moments, it definitely feels like a classic period piece in the worst sense — rigid, stale, and overly formal, much like the society we are being shown.
And despite the detailed costumes and sets, there are times where the lack of budget is definitely felt. It is sometimes painfully obvious that the film is trying to make scenes feel larger in scale than they actually are.
But Belle is an example of how classic, quiet period pieces can still be engaging if injected with enough humanity, be it through acting or through writing. It still feels like an out-dated, niche product, but it’s refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t feel the need to change it’s old-fashioned DNA in an attempt to reach as large an audience as possible.
Score: 3.5 out of 5