'Belle' is a Gothic Romance relevant for today

DJ Films

By Jacob Rich, For The Daily
Published July 2, 2014

Gothic fiction and “novels of manners” are tough genres to enjoy in the 21st century. Archaic gender roles, an overwhelming focus on the landed aristocracy, and long, drawn-out dialogue about seemingly irrelevant topics will no doubt frustrate or alienate most contemporary readers and viewers. While there are definitely those who still spend nights in high school flipping through these classic novels, fantasizing about their own Mr. Darcy or Rochester, there’s no question, though, that these arcane forms of romance is difficult to recommend to today’s teenagers.


Fox Searchlight
State Theater

It is with this understanding in mind that I warmly recommend “Belle,” a surprisingly fast-paced love story that challenges its Austenesque setting by increasing the stakes, expanding its focus, and doing away with extraneous dialogue. “Belle” stars the enchanting Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Odd Thomas”) as Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed race daughter of a wealthy British naval captain (Matthew Goode, “Match Point”). Dido is raised within the walls of privilege, but lacks the rest of her family’s social standing because of her race. “Belle” follows Dido as she comes of age and begins to search for a suitable husband.

However, the film does not limit its focus to Dido’s personal journey to find love. Her family also becomes intertwined with the trial of the crew of the Zong, a real-life landmark court case in which the crew of an English slave ship killed 142 African slaves by throwing them overboard in chains. Suddenly Dido’s actions have gravity unheard of in similar love stories, as her romance with a radical anti-slavery lawyer (Sam Reid, “The Railway Man”) could shape the future of the English slave trade.

“Belle” is beautifully filmed. Agile camera work highlights the film’s lavish set designs and costuming, which never falters from looking gorgeous or feeling historically accurate. Editor Pia Di Ciaula maintains a fast cutting rhythm that rarely lingers on a shot for longer than three seconds, keeping the viewer stimulated throughout (something that can’t be said for many contemporary film romances).

This film shall be a career-maker for Mbatha-Raw, who delivers a performance so gripping and emotional that the theater’s small crowd audibly reacted to her dialogue. Michigan Theater patrons, sometimes a reserved and cerebral group, were heard whooping and snapping their fingers whenever Dido retorted cleverly to the film’s antagonists.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast gives mixed performances, especially the men. Tom Wilkinson (“In the Bedroom”) is fabulous as family patriarch (and Lord Chief Justice of England) William Murray, but the rest of the male performances are seriously lacking, especially Goode, who overacts the hell out of his few scenes, and Reid, who does his best Michael Fassbender impression but fails to escape his limited emotional range consisting mostly of “agitated.” Tom “Malfoy” Felton (“Harry Potter”) is predictably typecast as an obnoxious John Reed-esque villain. It’s distracting and superficial.

The ending is predictable, but the journey is not. Intelligent dialogue and sensitive direction entertain to the very end. If you love Brontë and Austen, you must see this film. If you don’t, check it out anyway — you might find yourself surprised at its palatability.