Adaptations of Jane Austen’s work and other Georgian-era-set films arrive via indie theaters and PBS almost as though they’re on a schedule. Fans of witty stories of class-defying romance get their fix of empire-waist dresses, demure courtships and misunderstandings every year or so, but there’s often little to differentiate one from another (not that we complain when a new adaptation appears). Based on a true story, director Amma Asante’s “Belle” has every element that costume drama fans love, but it elevates a standard love story by adding larger historical implications and giving us a new perspective on the era.
In 1769, after the death of her mother, a young Dido Elizabeth Belle (Lauren Julien-Box) is brought to the home of her naval officer father’s uncle to be raised as though she were a legitimate daughter. Though her mother was an African slave, her great uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) loves her as his own child, despite the complex societal rules that attempt to define her place. As she grows up alongside her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), the differences in their futures become ever more stark. As a young woman on the verge of coming out into society, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is an heiress, but her mixed racial heritage keeps her from finding an equal match. Meanwhile her beloved, beautiful cousin has little to offer in terms of a dowry, putting her in a difficult position as well.
“Belle” has all the wit and heart of a standard Jane Austen adaptation, but there’s more weight here. Dido and her cousin Elizabeth struggle with issues familiar to fans of Georgian-era-set fiction, particularly class, money, and the role love does or doesn’t play in courtship and marriage. But in addition to that, Asante’s Dido contends with issues of racial and societal identity as she feels like she neither fits with the family who has raised her or the servants to tend to them. Characters’ reactions to Dido and her racial heritage are varied and complex, including horror, exoticization, and respect. Adding to this is her great uncle Lord Mansfield’s position as the most powerful judge in the land, who is set to rule on a case involving a slave ship that could affect England’s slave trade as a whole. He is at odds with his apprentice John Davinier (Sam Reid), a parson’s son with ambitions to move past his lowly station and become a lawyer. Davinier also becomes a rival for Dido’s affections, contending with the aristocratic Oliver Ashford (James Norton) for her hand.
Though Mbatha-Raw has had roles in short-lived series “Touch” and “Undercovers” as well as a number of other credits, she feels like a fresh discovery here. Dido requires her to be alternately fearful and full of grace, confident in who she is while feeling at odds with her own blood. She holds her own with some of Britain’s best talent, and it feels natural for her to be on screen with Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson and Penelope Wilton.
We would’ve liked to see much more of Watson, who really only gets one meaty scene in the film as Dido’s great aunt, while we want Wilton (most recognizable as Isobel Crawley in “Downton Abbey”) to be in every British film to add a bit of levity as a persnickety aunt or a feisty grandmother. Meanwhile, Reid’s John Davinier is made from the mold of Fitzwilliam Darcy, at first cold and at odds with our heroine, but then there’s (unsurprising) depth and passion. We went weak in the knees more than a few times thanks to Reid’s earnestness. Smelling salts, please.
Asante’s film is entirely successful at what it wants to be and should charm its intended audience (and then some). This is only the director’s second film, after 2004’s “A Way of Life,” but “Belle” is in capable, assured hands. It has all the hallmarks of the genre style-wise, but it never feels stuffy. Fans of the genre have spent a lot of time in this world, but we’re seeing it through new eyes. Kimber Myers/Indiewire
FOX THEATRE introduces alcohol service!
This year marks the Fox Theatre’s centenary! One hundred years of projecting the finest movies independently on Toronto’s East Side. Time to bust out the champagne and celebrate! Starting this June, in addition to our current concessions offerings audience members will be able to enjoy a glass of wine, or beer at the cinema. Up until now The Fox has offered a wide variety of juice and soda, but these are not ideal for all tastes, and we know that many of you would be happy to enjoy a glass of wine while taking in a screening. While it has become the norm for cinemas to charge extra for this opportunity, at the Fox theatre the VIP treatment will not cost you anything extra! Ticket prices will stay the same, and drinks will be reasonably priced.
The Fox theatre has always strived to offer our loyal and supportive audience something special. Be it the movies that we program, the environment in the cinema, the friendly interaction between staff and audience member or the concessions stand offerings. From real butter on your popcorn, to British style black licorice, our offerings may not be what works for the crowds at the multiplex, but it is clear that something unique, and sophisticated is what people want when they watch a film at The Fox. In the same way that we have many bottles of juice to choose from, audience members will now have several alcohol based beverages to choose from. A pilsner fan should be able to order a pilsner. If someone would like to enjoy a pale ale, then pale ale they shall have! We will have multiple reds and white wines to choose from. We also intend to feature rotating monthly specials and seasonal offerings. It may take time for us to shape our options to best suit the beverages you prefer, but what you drink will dictate what stays in our cooler, and suggestions you have will be welcomed, so please do not hesitate to offer them.
The addition of a liquor license opens The Fox up to a variety of new possibilities that we plan to explore, from wine or scotch tastings, to sporting event presentations. This also makes the venue an interesting option for birthday party rentals, business seminars, or receptions. We are very excited about moving forward with this, and hope you share our enthusiasm. If you have suggestions, concerns or questions please do not hesitate to email. Daniel@foxtheatre.ca. And speaking of birthday parties, keep your eyes open for our upcoming 100th birthday celebration to occur in July!
Q: Does this mean that The Fox will suddenly be overrun by drunken teenaged trouble makers, escalating to the point at which it becomes a post apocalyptic Thunderdome?
A: Our audience falls in the 35+ category, and while we do have quite a bit of faith that our audience is mature and quite refined, Fox staff have been trained in the Smart Serve program to ensure that audience members are not over-served, and that service is limited to those 19 and over.
Q: With texting and talking in cinemas already a problem, won’t the presence of alcohol just increase the potential for in theatre distractions?
A: Though it has never been an issue at The Fox, texting and general audience etiquette has been an issue at many big box cinemas. One of the reasons people come to The Fox is that our audience respects the presentation. We take this very seriously and want to assure anyone concerned that while we don’t expect these new offerings will negatively affect The Fox dynamic, we will as always, be monitoring the auditorium very closely.
Q: Doesn’t red wine make some people sleepy?
A: Some people. But we will have other options, and maybe don’t drink red wine during a more demanding movie if this is an issue for you. Also, we don’t currently have plans for selling Turkey, so a post Thanksgiving dinner style red wine/turkey coma occurring during a screening is unlikely.
Q: Sometimes beer bubbles tickle my nose.
A: That’s not a question.