'Belle' tries separating honesty from formality

Matt Pais movie review: 'Belle'

'Belle'

'Belle' (May 5, 2014)

**1/2 (out of four)

Had “Belle” not noted off the bat that it’s based on a true story, viewers could be forgiven for thinking the film were some kind of Jane Austen/Emily Bronte mashup. Anyone delighted by pre-Victorian England relationships—this suitor would be safe, but this more controversial suitor is the one I truly love!—and characters who pronounce fortune as “for-choon” will be left giddy in their colonial hat or bosom-busting dress.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (the upcoming Chicago-made “Jupiter Ascending”) very much earns her starring role as Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay. After the death of her father (Matthew Goode), the biracial Dido becomes an heiress but, due to the color of her skin, an heiress with an asterisk. For years she’s lived with her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”), great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and great-aunt Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson), but she’s not allowed to eat with the family when company’s over. She inherits thousands from her father, but her genes mean she’s not officially allowed to come out into society and have a marriage so officially facilitated. Dido’s grateful for what she calls “freedom twice-over,” as a non-white person and as a woman, but neither feels free of restrictions.

As is mandatory for this type of story, Dido encounters a cartoonishly racist slimeball (Tom Felton, still costumed and sleazy after coughing all over Elizabeth Olsen in “In Secret”) and a man who seeks her hand but may be partially motivated by her finances. Her true affections, which inevitably begin as disgust, Mr. Darcy-style, lie with Mr. Davinier (Sam Reid). He’s seemingly the only non-racist in town, and how lucky that he’s attractive too! Davinier is an activist who informs Dido of a pending case that could strike a blow to pro-slavery law. This communication makes Lord Mansfield forbid Davinier from seeing or talking to Dido again, and, well, that sort of thing is never disobeyed with strolls on the DL, right?

The factual foundation of “Belle” makes it matter. Still, this also is a highly predictable movie about the numerous awful ways to put numeric value on a person and the overwhelming power of racism. There’s also pushy, swelling string accompaniment to big chats about love and bigotry with Lord Mansfield, a bellowing, closed-minded guy just begging to have his perspective altered. Treatment like this makes people shrug off reality rather than process it.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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