Amma Asante’s “Belle” is a beautifully shot, beautifully acted, beautifully palatable piece of work. It’s the sort of film bound to be embraced by audiences who found Steve McQueen’s infinitely superior “12 Years a Slave” to be too brutal to bear. Whereas McQueen made the audience feel the suffocating noose around his hero’s neck, Asante holds our visceral emotions at arm’s length much like the Jane Austen costume dramas it successfully emulates. Everything looks a touch too pretty and pleasing for comfort (even the corsets look cozy).
What makes the film a notable achievement is the little-known true story it illuminates. In a radiant star turn, Gugu Mbatha-Raw portrays the titular heroine, the illegitimate mixed race daughter of a white Royal Navy Admiral (Matthew Goode), who is raised by her great-uncle, formidable Judge Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). Though her status as an heiress brings her great fortune, Belle’s skin color deems her unfit for marriage. Mbatha-Raw’s performance deftly navigates her character’s gradual awakening and empowerment, but the film itself sadly lacks the conviction of its protagonist, succumbing too often to genre clichés and sentimental excess (actors are frequently required to have their eyes glistening in close-up, as if they are peeling onions out of frame). The editing by Victoria Boyell and Pia Di Cialula repeatedly derails the film’s dramatic momentum with clunky scene transitions and conspicuous cuts.
Yet the biggest misstep of all is the film’s typecasting, considering that the script’s overarching message is designed to encourage viewers to defy socially enforced stereotypes. Consider James Ashley, the vile racist “gentlemen” who glances at Belle with a demonic leer while muttering, “She disgusts me.” I began sinking into my chair when I realized that the horrid Mr. Ashley was being played by Tom Felton, the same actor who spent eight “Harry Potter” movies discriminating against wizards who had “muggle” parents. “Filthy little mudblood” was the catchphrase of Felton’s Draco Malfoy, and it could’ve easily fit into the actor’s subsequent roles, such as his chimp-hating guard in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Casting him as a Draco-like villain certainly works as an inside joke, but in an earnest historical drama like “Belle,” it’s a fatal distraction indicative of the film’s general lack of imagination.
Studios are clearly frightened that audiences won’t accept an actor in a role that isn’t identical to the one they had in their biggest moneymaker. It’s that same lack of nerve that has prevented Hollywood from casting black actresses in major releases that aren’t primarily preoccupied with their race. Over 100 years after the dawn of cinema, the best roles offered to African-American females are still slaves (“12 Years a Slave”) and maids (“The Help”). Lupita Nyong’o may have deservedly won her Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee more Oscar-worthy roles in her future, let alone a prosperous career. The media embraced her as an exotic curiosity, a condescending label that ensures her stay in the limelight will be a brief one. Fox Searchlight is attempting to mold Mbatha-Raw into “the next Nyong’o,” causing one to ponder whether “Belle” would’ve acquired any sort of wide release, had “Slave” performed poorly at the box office. Even if “Belle” turns out to be a massive “Help”-sized hit, that doesn’t mean Mbatha-Raw’s career options will be any greater than those of Viola Davis, Angela Bassett, LisaGay Hamilton and the countless other grossly underemployed black actresses whose talent has been put to waste.
Just as the Oscar-winning doc, “20 Feet From Stardom,” showed how there could only be one Aretha Franklin in the ’60s (thus negating the potential rise of equally talented black singers), last year’s Academy Awards only deemed one “black film” a deserving contender, despite the acclaim for “Fruitvale Station” and “The Butler.” And since the Jackie Robinson biopic, “42,” was a considerable success, its star, Chadwick Boseman, is now becoming typecast as the go-to guy to portray black icons. His next role is James Brown in the August release, “Get On Up,” directed by Tate Taylor, whose film version of “The Help” made racism look as outdated and photogenic as its period decor. If “Belle” connects with audiences, abolitionist icons could be considered marketable, thus enabling long-belated biopics on Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks to finally get made. If “Belle” flops, then Mbatha-Raw may soon find herself devoting her overqualified talents to “Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Three?”
But I digress. I always feel insulted when a film assumes I’m not open-minded enough to accept actors when they veer outside their comfort zone. It’s doubly insulting for a film like “Belle” to cast Tom Felton without a hint of irony as a Draco Malfoy clone and assume that I won’t let out an incredulous chuckle. Felton’s acting chops developed quite nicely during the decade he spent making the “Potter” series. There’s no reason why he should be condemned to continue playing the same role for the rest of eternity. I guess I just feel bad for the guy. It must stink having your career peak be the crowd-pleasing moment when your sniveling little twit of a character gets socked in the face…
“Belle” opens in Chicago on Friday, May 9th.