Film reviews: Belle | The Young and Prodigious

Costume drama Belle knows no subtlety, finds Siobhan Synnot

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, left, as Dido Elizabeth Belle and Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth Murray. Picture: AP

Belle (12A)

Director: Amma Asante

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Running Time: 104 minutes

Rating: * * *

THERE’S an important chapter of human history under all the corseted grace and favour drama of Amma Asante’s tasteful period piece Belle, in which an aristocrat causes a stir in Georgian society because she is beautiful, accomplished, wealthy and biracial.

Inspired by an image in a 1779 painting, Belle stars relative newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido, the daughter of a Royal Navy admiral (Matthew Goode) and a West Indian woman. Her father connects her to privilege, a small fortune, education and an estate in Hampstead, where she is raised by her great uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), his wife (Emily Watson) and maiden aunt (Penelope Wilton), and is treated as a sister to the other niece they’re raising, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon).

However, her illegitimacy and the colour of her skin cause complications when visitors call: “Too high in rank to dine with the servants,” she notes, “but too low to dine with the family.” What follows is an empire costume drama shot with 21st century resonance, an uneasy mash-up you might call “Going Downtown Abbey”, with some very noticeable supporting work from anachronistic Wonderbras.

Even if Belle was not the sharpest tool in this ornate box, she would have little difficulty separating out the heroes from the villains. Tom Felton’s young aristocrat never hides his disapproval when his big brother (James Norton) is intrigued by Dido. Besides, Felton is the fromer Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter, who has had such a run of gutless roles since then that his agent might as well stick him in Actor’s Spotlight with a picture of a talking snake.

Misan Sagay’s screenplay makes the good guys equally easy to divine, especially the idealistic activist John Davinier (Sam Reid) who has, alas, the excitable delivery of an Andy Murray Speak’n’Spell machine. Belle and Davinier connect over the drama’s subplot, the final verdict on the Zong slave ship, a case heard by Mansfield as Chief Justice. A real life event, it concerned the killing of 142 slaves, thrown overboard by owners who claimed it was necessary after supplies ran low. Even more horrifying, it wasn’t a murder trial but an attempt by the ship’s owners to claim the financial loss of cargo from their insurers.

As part of Belle’s drama, however, this is a narrative tool that causes Davinier to be dismissed from a pupillage with Mansfield, and forced to update Dido in secret with his passionately righteous monologues. “I’ve never heard anyone speak like that,” she exclaims, and although Sagay means this as a compliment, it really isn’t.

It’s remarkable that, despite being set in the time of Jane Austen, Belle’s characters eschew irony and subtext, instead chatting away indecorously about racism, money, equality and class in the baldest of terms. Equally unsubtle is Davinier’s silent appreciation of Dido, telegraphed by Reid gazing after Mbatha-Raw in the manner of a basset hound deprived of a meaty bone.

Asante has only made two films, and here’s hoping that she goes on to get better and better. Belle isn’t awful, but it is awfully slow, didactic and far too reliant on Mbatha-Raw’s fine, expressive eyes.

The Young and Prodigious

TS Spivet (3D) (12A)

Rating: * * * *

BUTTON-bright eyes, colourful tics and almost homicidal whimsy? It must be time for Amélie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet to return to the screen with a new fable. This time he’s armed with the tall tale of preternaturally bright TS Spivet (Kyle Catlett), who lives on a ranch in Montana and enjoys maps, inventing weird contraptions and making fussy diagrams of everything from how his sister’s mind works to how to spot a fake smile.

He’s so brilliant that the Smithsonian awards him a prestigious award. What they don’t know is that TS is only a child, who decides to pick up his prize in person by travelling to Washington without money, transport or telling his parents.

This is Jeunet’s first English language film since Alien: Resurrection, but Reif Larsen’s 2009 bestseller seems tailor-made for a director who loves textual digressions, and lavishes attention on a beetle-obsessed mother (Helena Bonham Carter), a remote cowboy dad (Callum Keith Rennie), bumbling coppers, eccentric truck drivers and an ageing sailor (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon).

Spivet has the best use of 3D since Martin Scorsese’s pop-up moviebook Hugo, and uses many of the same team to make its images of snakes and freight trains pop. Perhaps by the time a collection of campy adults try to cash in on the child prodigy, his film has become a little distracted and silly, but his rabid inventiveness never bores – provided your energy levels can match those of an irrepressible junior cartographer.

On general release from Friday

Of Horses And Men (15)

Rating: * * * *

A strikingly quirky debut by director Benedikt Erlingsson offers a series of vignettes about Icelandic ponies and the ties that bind them to the local horse-riding community. Affectionate, but scenes of death and horse love may not be for the squeamish.

Glasgow Film Theatre, today until 15 June; Dundee Contemporary Arts from 20 June; Belmont, Aberdeen from 27 June

Oculus (15)

Rating: * * *

A sister (Karen Gillan) and brother (Brenton Thwaites) plan to face down a demonic mirror that destroyed their family. Gillan invests her character with energy but the film struggles to generate enough shocks and twists to sustain its length.

On general release

In Bloom (15)

Rating: * * *

Drama set in the former Soviet republic of Georgia during the 1992 civil war, where two 14-year-old girls find their friendship tested when one of them is propelled into marriage. The two nonprofessional actresses shine.

Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday until 15 June

Looking For Light (15)

Rating: * * *

Jane Bown is one of the great press photographers, famous for capturing frank images of subjects ranging from Samuel Beckett to Margaret Thatcher. Unfortunately Bown herself is not terribly revealing.

Fimhouse, Edinburgh, tomorrow until Wednesday

When I Saw You (12A)

Rating: * * *

An 11-year-old Jordanian gets separated from his family during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and ends up in a secret military camp for Palestinian guerrillas. An earnest piece of social realism from a child’s point of view.

Glasgow Film Theatre, tomorrow until Wednesday

Devil’s Knot (15)

Rating: * * *

Colin Firth stars in this dramatisation of the West Memphis Three trial. Reese Witherspoon is the mother of one of the murdered boys, who comes to believe the wrong people have been imprisoned. Director Atom Egoyan fails to offer much fresh insight in this well-intentioned but oddly uninvolving film.

On general release