This film is so British that it comes complete with a great deal of dryness, with often bitingly witty, but stuffy dialogue and a subdued atmosphere which render the film, maybe not dull, but a little bland especially when the narrative is dragged out. There was never to be all that much activity in this film, not with a minimalist story concept that I will touch more upon here in a second, but just over 100 minutes still feels too long for momentum to be maintained within the storytelling that ends up dragging its way to a predictable point. British-grade dryness is not the only familiar trait in this film, which is generic something fierce as a predictable, trope-heavy portrait on high-class affairs in 18th century London, no matter how much they incorporate elements regarding race relations that are themselves conventional. This really is nothing new, to my surprise, and this film cannot afford to be so predictable, because, again, its story is thin enough as it is, carrying intriguingly worthy themes and heart, but basing it all around idle chit-chat and subdued action that the filmmakers sometimes try too hard to compensate for. Timely melodramatics come off as cloying from time to time, when Amma Asante's direction imbues the atmosphere with a sentimentality that could itself be compensated for if this film, even with its natural shortcomings, had some sort of edge, and didn't tap dance around strikingly harrowing visuals or a consistency in issues which would supplement the genuineness and the overall effectiveness of the thematic weight of this drama on racism and typical high-class issues. Let me tell you right now that if this story was told by a liberal American, it would have beaten you half to death with its themes, and as things stand, no matter how passionate Asante may be about ethnicity's rocky history in British society, - whose race issues have admittedly been underexplored in film - the overt subtlety counteracts many of the subtlety issues, but there is too much sensitivity and ambition in this dramatic interpretation of a story of only so much meat, and nearly no real originality. The final product ultimately sputters out quite a ways shy of what it wants to be, yet it does actually come close enough to endear, and immerse.
Claudio Campa's and Ben Smith's immersive art direction is not particularly unique, although it is pretty lavish, joining production designer Simon Bowles and costume designer Anushia Nieradzik in restoring upper-class London with an extensive craftsmanship and handsomeness. Ben Smithard's cinematography further define the film's good looks, too chilled in color to stun, yet clean and well-lit enough to catch your eye time and again, while a score by the great Rachel Portman proves to beautiful in its violin-driven sentimentality, in spite of its being conventional and often abused by director Amma Asante at the expense of full dramatic subtlety. Asante is either overblown with her dramatic atmosphere or overly safe with her portrayal of pressing issues within the subject matter, and yet, she never gets too cloying, nor does she ever get too safe, and when she finds a proper balance in dramatic storytelling, her efforts resonate, compelling you with glimpses of what could have been. Indeed, there is some potential in this imagination of events surrounding a painting of the titular Dido Elizabeth Belle, which is melodramatic sure, but no more so than the usual British drama of this nature, being generally convincing, if familiar, and intimate, if minimalist, with themes on British race relations, challenging tradition with true love, and conflicts in family and honor. This subject matter does have a lot of promise, and for betrayal screenwriter Misan Sagay places against the potential, she delivers on enough sharp and recurring dialogue to hold your attention, and enough busy set pieces to keep dullness at bay, while fleshing out nuanced, compelling characters whose human value plays as instrumental a role as anything in making the film as engaging as it ultimately is. Quite frankly, it may be the performances that bring to such a point, for it is the portrayal of compelling characters that most compels, with standouts including Tom Wilkinson as a man of an integrity he aims to maintain alongside the love of his apparently blemished family, the lovely Sarah Gadon as a lady who fears for her struggles and the struggles of her best friend, Sam "Aussie Armie Hammer" Reid as an open-minded humanist with a questionable love interest, and, of course, leading lady Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a respectable, good-hearted lady who must face emotional devastation and uphold composure against the oppressions that fall over her as both a woman of black blood, and as a woman in general. Mbatha-Raw is not given the material to be stellar, but she is a revelation, a worthy, driving lead who helps greatly in defining the final product as compelling, in spite of its natural and consequential shortcomings.
Overall, the film is a little blandly dry and tends to drag its feet, not unlike other British films of its type, but the tropes don't end there in this generic, conceptually thin, and either sentimentally or safely drawn story, thus, the final product fails to reward, but through immersive art direction, beautiful cinematography and score work, and a largely worthy story, brought to life by heartfelt direction and writing, and carried by a solid cast, Amma Asante's "Belle" stands as an improvable, but admirable portrait on racial and high-class social issues in 18th century England.
2.75/5 - Decent
Amma Asante did a great directing job here. Tom Wilkinson also shines in the film. Sam Reid is very good and has a great on screen chemistry with Gugu. Matthew Goode is also good in his brief role as Belle's father. Also solid supporting work from Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, Emily Watson, and Miranda Richardson.
The only negative with the movie, is when the studio released it. The studio should have released the film in the fall, instead of the summer. By releasing it in the summer, the film has a small chance of being noticed for any Oscar consideration. Had the film been released in the fall, the film's Oscar chances would have been greater.
I definitely recommend this film, especially for Gugu's performance.