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dir Amma Asante
scr Misan Sagay
prd Damian Jones
with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sarah Gadon, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Miranda Richardson, Tom Felton, James Norton, Bethan Mary-James, Lauren Julien-Box, Matthew Goode
release US 2.May.14, UK 13.Jun.14
13/UK Fox 1h44
Society sisters: Gadon and Mbatha-Raw
TORONTO FILM FEST
|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E
Lavishly produced like a full-on British costume drama, this film is like a Jane Austen story infused with a big political issue. Fine acting and adept filmmaking abound, and it's even based on a true story that's genuinely important. Although some events have clearly been fictionalised for dramatic purposes.
In 1769, a half-black girl named Dido Belle (Julien-Box) is taken by her father (Goode) to live with his uncle, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Wilkinson), and his wife (Watson), who are already looking after another niece. The two girls grow up together and become inseparable, but while Dido (now Mbatha-Raw) inherits a small fortune from her father, Elizabeth (Gadon) is penniless but far more suitable due to her pale skin. They are courted by brothers (Felton and Norton) with an aggressively encouraging mother (Richardson), but Dido catches the eye of law student John (Reid).
All of this is entangled in a political plot-thread about a huge case involving the slave trade, which Mansfield is due to rule on imminently, potentially challenging the British Empire's commercial underpinnings in the process. It's fairly astonishing that, at this point in time, the nation's top judge had an adopted mixed-race daughter who probably influenced his momentous rulings, but this part of the story is completely true. As are the complex realities of Dido living a life out of sync with the rest of British society.
Less believable are the romantic entanglements, which have an air of corny melodrama about them and are of course a lot more fun as a result. Mbatha-Raw is terrific in the role, bringing to life Dido's sharp intelligence and burning passion for justice while creating terrific chemistry with Reid, Gadon, Wilkinson and Wilton (as the aunt who effectively raised her). The solid supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with Wilkinson a standout for his sensitive, balanced performance.
The film is also produced to a very high standard, complete with Rachel Portman's surging score, Ben Smithard's vivid cinematography and Simon Bowles' impeccable production design. Director Asante and writer Sagay beautifully balance the lighter human moments with much darker drama and some punchy emotional high points. And in the end the film has a lot to say about so many aspects of the race issue that it lingers in the mind even as we understand that we're being shamelessly entertained.
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© 2014 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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