Belle (UK, 2013)

Black belle

Although the inspiration for the film isn’t simply the above painting, where the bi-racial Belle is depicted with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, the presence of a woman of colour in an aristocratic household in late 18th England is the core enigma of the film. The household is headed by Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) who, as Lord Chief Justice, made some judgements that helped in the abolition of slavery. Scriptwriter Misan Sagay melodramatically places one of the key decisions with Belle’s ‘coming out in society’ although, in fact, she was actually a young child at this time. This melodramatic narrative serves to highlight the racial discourse that is central to the film.

Director Amma Asante, whose A United Kingdom (Czech Republic-UK-US, 2016) also unearthed, superbly, hidden history about race, stated:

“You see a biracial girl, a woman of colour, who’s depicted slightly higher than her white counterpart. She’s staring directly out, with a very confident eye. This painting flipped tradition and everything the 18th century told us about portraiture. What I saw was an opportunity to tell a story that would combine art history and politics.” (link)

That’s not how I see it. To me they look level in the frame, though Belle’s turban is marginally higher; this equality in itself would have been a radical statement at the time. Belle also looks as if she is being pushed away and Elizabeth dominates two thirds of the frame. However if it is a push it’s certainly not aggressive given the smiling faces of both. Even though Belle is only filling a third of the frame she is the dynamic actor, moving on and in the direction of the city; St Paul’s can be seen in the background. Elizabeth is inhabiting a more domestic space that, even though she is outside, is enclosed and darker.

Belle’s finger pointing to her face is puzzling (there are theories in the article quoted above). The most obvious interpretation is she’s drawing attention to her colour; if this is the case it is doing it in an extraordinarily modern way as it is a hyperbolic gesture that serves only to emphasise the obvious. It’s almost ‘cheesy’.

Both women engage the viewer’s gaze with confidence; they are not there for the male gaze they are for themselves. It is an extraordinary painting; as far as I can tell, it’s not known who created the image.

The film is fascinating too and although it may lean a little too far toward crowd pleasing narrative resolutions that can be forgiven as it’s telling a fabulous tale. It’s a stellar cast, including Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, James Norton, which is headed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw who is superb as Belle.

I am looking forward to Asante’s next film.

Anna Karenina (UK, 2012)

Fabulous sets

Period drama is not one of my favourite genres; it’s often shot staidly and we are merely invited to look at the ‘wonderful’ period detail and ‘classical’ British acting. Joe Wright does things differently. I enjoyed his Pride and Prejudice (France-UK-USA, 2005), where the steadicam roamed through Austen’s tasteful plotting and dialogue. He’s even more ambitious in Anna Karenina by deciding, after failing to find suitable locations (or budget), to shoot much of the film in a theatre.

It isn’t presented as a real theatre, and there’s no attempt to root the narrative in theatrical terms (as if it were all a performance), instead he uses the artifice of theatre to offer tour de force set design and transitions between scenes. In doing so he heightens the melodrama so, for example, the horse race that takes place on stage seems to threaten the onlookers even more as such races don’t occur indoors. The waltz, when Karenina (a suitably haughty Keira Knightley) falls for Vronsky (an insipid Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is dazzling in its virtuosity (I have no idea whether those hand movements are authentic but they looked great).

Jude Law, against type as the cuckold, is excellent and the other standout for me was Domhnall Gleeson, who represented true love amongst the hypocrisy of the aristocracy.

I hope the film does the ‘biz’ at the box office (£5m in the UK isn’t great) because it’s a superb attempt at an ambitious British film with a wide appeal. That need encouraging.

Wuthering Heights (UK, 2011)

The new black

If there was danger of another version of Wuthering Heights becoming hackneyed then the casting of black actors as young and older Heathcliffe immediately averted the possibility. Bronte describes Heathcliffe (as I remember) as ‘swarthy’ and so it’s entirely fitting, as are the racist expletives which Bronte couldn’t have used in her novel. Race is added to the class issues of the novel and Heathcliffe’s ‘outsider’ status is heightened.

Unlike mainstream versions of the novel, Andrea Arnold directs this as resolutely arthouse with little emphasis on narrative development. Instead nature, animals and the landscape, is given time to take its proper role in the story and, in doing, stalls the narrative slightly. The Academy ratio (4:3), I think, is used to constrict the mise en scene so we’re not allowed to bathe in the beauty of the landscape and it emphasises that the characters are trapped.

The performances are good, though I found Kaya Scodelario too insipid as the older Catherine; newcomer Shannon Beer excels as the younger. Arnold shows Cathy and Heathcliffe’s attraction to each other to be elemental, based on a necessity, and not romantic. I shall have to find to time to reread the novel as this version is a revelation.