Plenty of grist for drama’s mill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

IN the 1780s, the pe­riod in which Bri­tish di­rec­tor Amma Asante’s sec­ond fea­ture, Belle, un­folds, slav­ery was still the source of a ma­jor part of Bri­tain’s econ­omy, and busi­ness­men and abo­li­tion­ists alike were trans­fixed by the Zong case. The Dutch-built slave ship was ac­quired by a Liver­pool com­pany in 1781 and was trans­port­ing 442 slaves from what is now Ghana to Ja­maica when it be­came clear that the cramped con­di­tions in which they were be­ing held had re­sulted in dis­ease.

Re­al­is­ing that his cargo of sick slaves would be worth­less, the ship’s mas­ter made the de­ci­sion to throw about 142 men, women and chil­dren over­board, and claimed in­sur­ance for their loss. The case even­tu­ally came be­fore Lord Mans­field, the Scot­tish-born lord chief jus­tice, and Asante’s film, scripted by Misan Sa­gay, sug­gests, with rea­son­able author­ity, that Mans­field’s land­mark de­ci­sion, which is seen as the be­gin­ning of the end of the slave trade, was in­flu­enced by a young mu­latto woman who lived in his house.

Dido “Belle” Lind­say was the il­le­git­i­mate daugh­ter of Bri­tish naval of­fi­cer John Lind­say (Matthew Goode) and a Ja­maican woman. In 1769, Lind­say left his daugh­ter in the care of his un­cle, Lord Mans­field (Tom Wilkin­son) and Lady Mans­field (Emily Wat­son), who were child­less. Also liv­ing in the house was an­other child the same age as Dido, El­iz­a­beth Mur­ray, daugh­ter of an­other Mans­field nephew. The two girls be­came in­sep­a­ra­ble, but as the years passed it be­came ob­vi­ous that the half-caste Dido was “dif­fer­ent”; she wasn’t al­lowed to dine when com­pany was present and, al­though the Mans­fields were de­voted to her, she was in al­most ev­ery sense a sec­ond-class cit­i­zen.

Not quite, though, be­cause the grown El­iz­a­beth (Sarah Gadon) was pen­ni­less and thus to­tally re­liant on find­ing a hus­band to sup­port her, whereas Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in­her­ited a for­tune from her fa­ther and was con­se­quently in­de­pen­dent.

Belle is an un­usu­ally in­ter­est­ing cos­tume drama. The themes it ex­plores pro­vide first­class dra­matic ma­te­rial. The end of slav­ery is a bat­tle long won, at least in the Western world (ex­cept in the area of sex slav­ery), but the role of women in the 18th century is also up for dis­cus­sion here (and com­par­isons are made be­tween the op­tions open to women then and the al­most equally con­fined role des­ig­nated to slaves).

As­sante, whose pre­vi­ous film, A Way of Life (2004), was a low-budget con­tem­po­rary drama, has di­rected this lav­ish and el­e­gant tale with style and has as­sem­bled a stel­lar cast. MbathaRaw as the in­tel­li­gent, loyal, in­de­pen­dent Dido is an in­spi­ra­tional hero­ine.

Wilkin­son is qui­etly con­vinc­ing as the coun­try’s most pow­er­ful le­gal mind, who finds him­self faced with a de­ci­sion that he knows will have mon­u­men­tal reper­cus­sions. As his con­cerned wife, Wat­son gives her usual re­li­able per­for­mance, and Miranda Richard­son is wickedly amus­ing as the for­mi­da­ble Lady Ash­ford, who has two sons in the mar­ket for wives with gen­er­ous dowries.

These ar­ro­gant young men are por­trayed by James Nor­ton, as the marginally more pleas­ant of the two, and Tom Fel­ton, as the kind of big­oted racist to be avoided at all costs. In con­trast is John Davinier (Sam Reid), a young man from an im­pov­er­ished back­ground, son of a lo­cal cler­gy­man (and thus an ob­ject of scorn to the Ash­fords), but ea­ger to study law and one day to make a dif­fer­ence to so­ci­ety. Also no­table is Pene­lope Wil­ton as the maiden aunt in the Mans­field fam­ily, the woman who ex­pe­ri­enced an un­happy love af­fair and never mar­ried and whose only means of sur­vival as she nears old age is to work as a house­keeper, an­other ex­am­ple of the re­stricted op­tions open to women in Bri­tish so­ci­ety at the time.

This is quite a dense film in terms of char­ac­ter; there’s a lot to get your teeth into and, at the end of it all, it’s a rat­tling good story. The facts be­hind the Zong case and Mans­field’s de­ci­sion were prob­a­bly not ex­actly the “facts” de­picted here, but Belle is a lively and en­ter­tain­ing fic­tion­al­i­sa­tion of what might have hap­pened. THE Cannes film fes­ti­val, which opens in a few days, is more than just the world’s great­est show­case for the dis­cov­ery of new cin­ema, it’s also a place where commercial deals are done, movies are fi­nanced and sales are made to ter­ri­to­ries all over the world. If you want an idea as to how all of this works, have a look at James Toback’s doc­u­men­tary Se­duced and Aban­doned, which should prove an eye-opener.

In 2012, Toback and ac­tor Ben Af­fleck went to Cannes to raise money for a pro­posed re­make of Last Tango in Paris, to be set in Iraq and ti­tled Last Tango in Tikrit. Be­fore leav­ing Hol­ly­wood for the Riviera, Toback as­sured the ac­tress cho­sen to play the fe­male lead in the pro­posed film, Neve Camp­bell, that no mat­ter what hap­pened her role was se­cure. Toback and Af­fleck dis­cov­ered, how­ever, that no fi­nancier was likely to give $15 mil­lion-$20m for a film star­ring Af­fleck and Camp­bell; they weren’t box-of­fice names, and it wasn’t worth the risk.

I think we can take this whole ex­er­cise with sev­eral grains of salt be­cause I doubt that a canny op­er­a­tor such as Toback, who has made eight low-budget fea­tures through the years with var­i­ous de­grees of suc­cess, plus a well-re­garded doc­u­men­tary on Mike Tyson, be­lieved that a project such as the one he was propos­ing would get off the ground.

More likely, Se­duced and Aban­doned (the ti­tle is bor­rowed from a clas­sic Ital­ian com­edy of the 1960s) is an elab­o­rate joke and the filmed meet­ings with money men aren’t taken very se­ri­ously, at least not by Toback and Af­fleck. These scenes are in­ter­est­ing, though, as Toback, faced with de­ri­sive of­fers of a budget less than half his re­quire­ments, starts won­der­ing aloud how to at­tract more money. Maybe if Camp­bell’s char­ac­ter is killed off and a more bank­able ac­tress is brought into the story (Diane Kruger? Jes­sica Chas­tain?).

Equally fas­ci­nat­ing are the in­ter­views with some of cin­ema’s greats — Martin Scors­ese, Ro­man Polan­ski, Fran­cis Ford Coppola, Bernardo Ber­tolucci — who talk about how they got started and what Cannes means to them. Now con­fined to a wheel­chair, Ber­tolucci is re­veal­ing when he talks about work­ing with Mar­lon Brando on the orig­i­nal Last Tango. One of the high­lights is a con­tri­bu­tion from Ryan Gosling; his com­ments on Hol­ly­wood au­di­tions are price­less. Se­duced and Aban­doned is, if noth­ing else, a film buff’s de­light. LAT­EST in the de­press­ing line-up of gross-out Hol­ly­wood come­dies is Bad Neigh­bors (the orig­i­nal ti­tle dis­pensed with the “Bad”) in which Rose Byrne, play­ing an Aussie for once, and Seth Ro­gen move next to a frat house filled with un­ruly noisy char­ac­ters. Ba­nal riffs on pop cul­ture themes vie for laughs with de­press­ing jokes about tits, balls and dicks. The low-point has Byrne (who I hope was well paid) be­ing “milked” by Ro­gen. What­ever hap­pened to com­edy?

Alec Bald­win, left, James Toback and Ro­man Polan­ski in a scene from Se­duced and Aban­doned

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.