*THROWBACK REVIEW* BELLE

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Pride and Racial Prejudice or Frownton Abbey. A stellar British cast uplifts a syrupy biopic that you’d expect to see on ITV. 12 Years A Slave, this ain’t. It’s certainly watchable and zips along but it doesn’t really make full use of the cast or the subject matter and inevitably leads to the same old predictable schmaltzy finale.

So what’s it all about? Inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The illegitimate mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy captain is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and wife (Emily Watson).

Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet the colour of her skin prevents her from fully participating in the traditions of her social standing. However, she soon falls for an idealistic young vicar’s son (Sam Reid – The Riot Club) bent on change who, with her help, shapes Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England.

Well, at least gets the ball rolling . . . sort of, kinda.

The beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Touch) takes the fold and delivers a strong performance. One to watch for the future. Matthew Goode (Stoker/The Good Wife) applies enough charisma to make a memorable impression as Captain Sir John Lindsay, who plucks an orphaned Belle from poverty and much worse. A shame that he is only in the film for five minutes before departing on a long voyage.

To be honest, anyone could have played him. Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey) seems to be typecast of late as the uptight old prune of an aunt but if she delivers the goods, does it matter? To me, just a bit.

Even Tom Felton is playing a Victorian Draco Malfoy, complete with “mudblood” attitude in tow. Don’t get me wrong, he plays the slick toothed snob to perfection. As does James Norton (or Tommy from the highly acclaimed BBC TV series Happy Valley) as Felton’s smug brother and partner in crime.

They are both the weasel-y twins (What?) as they try and weave their way into Belle’s fortune. Miranda Richardson (Blackadder) is also brilliant as their conniving matriarch. Emily Watson plays her part well, even if her character is completely unnecessary.

Merely, a commentator sitting on the side lines. Commentary that is self-explanatory as, to be honest, there is not a lot going on. The beautiful Sarah Gadon (Dracula Untold) is making an impression. She plays the dibby cousin Elizabeth well. You do feel for her character as she appears to be used as pawn in a game of rich chess or left lingering in the shadow of the “exotic beauty”.

I appreciate the concept and direction the film took. This is a completely different story to 12 Years A Slave that deals with the issue of race within the aristocracy. The fact that Belle was awarded the stature and position of any rich member of power and is unable to use it, says it all.

However, it all feels a little petty in comparison to the visceral gritty torture that Solomon endured. He was beaten, whipped and hung. Belle was made to eat in a separate room to the rest of the family and was perceived merely as an exhibition piece, an exotic jewel, nothing more.

Tom Wilkinson is fantastic as Lord Mansfield whose position is compromised in between fulfilling the law. The law that does not treat any person of colour with respect or even see them as people.

He works well with Mbatha-Raw which allows for some heartfelt moments. After the initial introduction and set up in an easy going half hour, the film seems to be happy to tend with the mundane gossip of petty rich Victorian folk while the inevitable romance blossoms between Belle and John Davinier (Reid). The awkward exchanges, the subtle glances and turning aways. Check, check. All there.

It all feels like by the end it is merely ticking the boxes for all the clichés of a period drama. Any chance of making statements are crushed by an inevitable corny love story. The finale is merely a revelatory court case with the verdict relying on Mansfield’s overriding decision.

A decision that is so obvious and unbelievably predictable that all the grandiose speeches mean nothing. I expected so much more.

It’s well-acted, easy going but doesn’t seem to be sure on whether to be a hard-hitting drama or a slow burning love story.

If you’re a period drama fan, then you’ll love this but it brings nothing new to the genre. Weaker episodes of Downton Abbey have done a better job (There’s never been a weak episode of Downton? That’s scandalous!)

If you’re already going in making comparisons and expecting 12 Years A Slave, then . . . watch 12 Years A Slave. Such a shame. Not bad but not great.

2.5/5

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY REVIEW

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I wish it was done in 100 minutes. An easygoing feel good movie that is light on the drama but heavy on the cheese. Nice to look at but a little overcooked.

Enough food punnery! Let’s tuck in. It’s Chef meets Slumdog Millionaire in a nutshell.

The opening quickly establishes that from a young age, Hassan has a taste for flavour. A passion for food. It zips along, skimming past all the usual cliches as Hassan (Manish Dayal) tells the story of his humble upbringings from India to an uninterested stuffy French customs officer.

There are some predictable if endearing revelations as to why the family are now emigrating to France. “England was too bloody cold”, grumbles the talented Om Puri (East is East and my personal favourite The Parole Officer). An easygoing half hour has enough to keep me watching as the Kadam family reach the beautifully shot pastoral French countryside and open a restaurant directly across the road from Madame Mallory’s (Helen Mirren) Michelin-starred eatery.

An inevitable war brews between the restaurants as they compete for custom. Mirren plays the stubborn snotty French hostess with aplomb. Even if she had her upper lip pumped (tut tut tut Madame). It’s all quite tame and silly, with the odd chuckle as Mallory buys all the food in the local market so the Kadams have to drive 50 miles to the next village, for example. Inconveniences and minor scrabbles is as far as the tone of the film will allow. Puri delivers some cracking one liners and is instantly love-able. A character you’re happy to see more of.

However, he doesn’t quite get the screen time or depth to really make as much of a impression as you first thought or expected. A shame for a talented actor who has proven successful with comedies. He works well with Mirren and they have good chemistry. However, not enough was made of the tension between them and it all wraps up so predictably.

Dayal plays the role of Hassan brilliantly and is a very charismatic lead. More to see of him in the future, methinks. Inevitably he falls for fellow chef, the adorable Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). For me, it all felt a little tame. Every obstacle felt more like a hiccup in which the family stumble but get back on their merry way with a cheesy grin.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still some surprises along the way. Especially in the brewing spat. Moments that I thought this fluffy film may not have touched. An event that resolves itself all too quickly, which leaves little for conflict after. Hassan and Marguerite’s ambition for becoming a renowned chef soon puts the sprinklers on their spurning romance. However, you just know how that story is going to end.

Hassan soon has to deal with the stress and pressure of fame as his cooking soon boasts his reputation among the cooking elite. As much as we can feel and relate to Hassan’s frustrations, you can’t help but know and predict how it’s all going to pan out with everybody smiling by the end.

For me the length was questionable. It meandered along way too much like the picturesque lake that Hassan and Marguerite share their picnics. There just wasn’t enough being made of the story or the talented cast with their loveable characters to justify it. Amit Shah, an up-and-coming comic talent was wasted in his role as Hassan’s brother-in-law Mansur. He has proven how funny he can be in The Infidel and the ITV sitcom Honest. Restricted and unmemorable.

It just about keeps you going but the tone of the film indicates what film you’re in for. An easygoing, nicey-nicey film, which isn’t a problem BUT it’s a shame because it could have been a lot more hard hitting and done in less time and been better for it.

You just can’t help but feel that if Mirren wasn’t attached to this vehicle that it might not have made the big screen altogether. The ingredients enough to serve as a ITV TV movie, at best. Uplifting, certainly. Funny, so-so. Easygoing? Yes plus it makes you want to go to France. But drama, tension and intrigue, it seems that the chef Lasse Hallstrom skipped a few steps in the cook book.

3 (just) out of 5 for me.