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:: Belle

Sometimes timing is everything when it comes to a film’s release. Twelve months ago people would have been saying that Belle was a much needed film looking at equal rights for all people, no matter their skin colour. But in a stroke of bad luck for Belle it comes out only a few months after the critically acclaimed 12 Years A Slave, a film that went further into the subject matter than any film before it.

Still Belle does deserve some credit, it tells the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a young girl who was parented by a black slave mother and her father, Navy Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). When her mother dies, her father who loves her dearly decides that it would be best for her if she was looked after by his wealthy Aunt, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) and Uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson).

The plan doesn’t go completely to plan though. While Dido is loved by her adopted guardians and Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton) they find that no matter how hard they try society just won’t accept her the way that it accepts their own daughter, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). The divide becomes even more apparent when the two women enter the ‘dating circle.’ While the well-off James Ashford (Tom Felton) pursues Elizabeth his brother Oliver (James Norton) goes against his wishes and tries to become a suitor for Belle. Their mother, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) does not fully like the fact that her son may marry a ‘mixed race’ woman but certainly sees financial benefit from it.

Just to further cause problems for Dido she becomes ‘interested’ in John Davinier (Sam Reid), an ambitious young law student who continuously butts heads with Lord Mansfield.

Belle is the kind of film that will slightly frustrate its audience. The story behind the film is a fascinating one and not one that most people would be familiar with and while director Amma Asante does a good job bringing the story to the big screen there just seems to be something that stops this film from becoming a brilliant cinematic experience.

While Asante and those involved for set design and costume capture the time period that Belle is set in have made the film look as good as a classic like Pride & Prejudice the screenplay, which comes from the pen of Misan Sigay sadly lets the film down a little. The script makes the film feel more like an episode of Downton Abbey rather than something people would want to pay $20 to see at the cinema.

There are a number of scenes in the film that needed to be more dramatic than they actually are. The confrontation between Dido and James Ashford needed to be a lot more suspenseful and threatening while a lot of the ‘dating circle’ scenes that feature Lady Mansfield and Lady Ashford almost seem like they were written for a soap opera rather than a big screen film. Even the scenes revolving around the whole court case never reach the dramatic peaks that they should have. Perhaps as a screenwriter Sigay should have taken another look at Lincoln to see how a good screenwriter can make scenes like that so suspenseful.

The acting in Belle is also let down by the screenplay. The talented skills of Penelope Wilton, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson are hardly even tested as they never seem to get out of cruise control throughout the film. The younger cast fair a little though. Sarah Gadon, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid all show that they have promising careers ahead of them while it is also good to see Tom Felton being able to show his talents outside of the Harry Potter franchise.

Belle is far a disappointment but discerning film goers are likely to want a little more out of their film. Still it is good to see such an important story making it onto the big screen.