Just like I noted in last year’s “12 Years a Slave,” director Amma Asante’s “Belle” forces all of us to relive a moment in history that we would rather forget.
With “Belle,” we revisit 1783 when England was forced to confront its embrace of slavery. It seems that a British ship stocked with slaves jettisoned them overboard under a fabricated excuse designed to collect insurance money. In the process, England had to look into its own soul, something that its rebellious colonies in North America were going to ignore for the next 80 years.
While the top jurist in England, Lord Mansfield, wrestled with an impending legal decision, he and his wife were also raising two nieces. One was Belle, a mixed-race daughter of a nephew who had died years earlier. In the process, Mansfield not only had to legally analyze the treatmen
t of blacks in the New World, but also the legal restrictions placed on those like his black niece living in England.
Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson are stunning as Lord and Lady Mansfield. Though both were dedicated to following accepted legal standards, they witnessed firsthand how their niece, Belle, was treated like a second-class citizen in their own home.
The captivating Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Belle, and she brings the same force to this film that Lupita Nyong’o did in her unforgettable, Oscar-winning performance in the above-referred to “12 Years a Slave.” Mbatha-Raw is as emotionally powerful as she is beautiful, and she tries to honor her adopted parents without abandoning her past.
In the process, she develops a powerful kinship with the Mansfield’s adopted white niece, Elizabeth. Poignantly played by Sarah Gadon, the two young girls reflect a future that England’s power brokers want to keep locked in a dark government basement.
Race issues in England are played out for all to see as the Mansfields interrelate socially with the Ashfords, a powerful family with more influence than they deserved. Miranda Richardson is startling as the hateful Lady Ashford, a woman who wants both a title and wealth for her two sons as long as it does not involve interaction with blacks. Her sons reflect her racism without apologies, and it is impossible to feel the slightest sympathy for any of them.
What stirs the film at its climax is the interrelationship of John Davinier, a committed son of a Vicar who is a budding lawyer, with the Mansfield family. Played with grace and style by Sam Reid, he is fighting to help Lord Mansfield understand the tyranny at the heart of slavery. In the process, he and Belle fall madly in love, and they join the struggle to find equality and themselves.
“Belle” is based on a true story, and I can only ask all of you to imagine if she had a descendent known today as Barack Obama. As I watch the startling amount of vitriol thrown at our president daily by the largely white male leaders of the opposition party, I wonder if Belle would have seen anything different than what existed in her day. While many of those who embrace “family values” condemn a president who is in a wonderful marriage raising two beautiful, intelligent daughters, they simultaneously embrace people like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh who have been married a combined seven times.
Belle was able to find a passionate man who was committed to her and a joint cause, but not everyone is that lucky. There are millions of young African-Americans like Belle who need assistance today, and it’s time for all of us to play a role.
With “Locke,” director Steven Knight conquers the shortcomings of Robert Redford’s performance in “All Is Lost.” Their similarity ends with the fact that there is but one character in each film.
Ivan Locke is played by the fantastic Tom Hardy, an actor that all of you should be following. An English actor of immense range, start with his performance as the maniacal Bane, the medically challenged villain in “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012).
In “Locke,” Hardy plays a happily married father of two who is the construction manager of the largest building project in England’s history. He leaves without notice to his boss or wife, going on a drive in his car for the entire film. He flirts with disaster as he wrestles with a sense of honor that comes close to devastating those around him.
Seeing him only behind the wheel of his car, Locke is constantly receiving phone calls from both his job and home. As he tries to direct one of his employees to supervise the mammoth project he left behind, his immediate boss is progressively angered to the point of being reluctantly forced to fire Locke.
Locke fully understands the condemnable nature of his journey, but simply has to do what he perceives as decent and fair. As he talks intermittently with his horrified wife, he vacillates through a series of emotions that are synonymous with life’s journey. On the other hand, his wife is disgusted for increasingly obvious reasons.
Forced to acknowledge the ramifications of a regrettable mistake, Locke risks all that is dear to him. Condemn him if you will, but imagine if President Bill Clinton had shown the courage to simply admit his weakness concerning the young Monica Lewinsky and refused to deny the encounter and vilify her in the process. Maybe he would have benefitted had he gotten into a car and simply driven for a few hours to talk things over with an angry Hillary and his staff.
Say what you want about Ivan Locke, but he is no Bill Clinton.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his Pennsylvania Street office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.