Two current films, both of which are dramatically flawed, still are well-worth seeing for two reasons: They feature superb performances by their leading players; and they offer insightful depictions of the plights of women during earlier ages. These women may have completely different backgrounds, but their gender-- and how they are perceived within the world they inhabit-- are central to their stories.
BELLE, which is set in the late 18th-century, is the fact-based tale of a mixed-race woman of British and African ancestry who comes of age in England as an heiress, and a member of the nobility. She is called Dido Elizabeth Belle, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the actress who plays her, offers a star-making performance: one that begs comparison with Lupita Nyong'o, the 12 YEARS A SLAVE Oscar-winner.
Belle's status is the result of her being the illegitimate daughter of a British admiral who acknowledges her existence and an African slave. Plus, she is raised by her great-uncle, the aristocratic Lord Mansfield, and his wife. Belle enjoys the advantages that her upbringing allows her within a class-conscious culture, but it is a culture in which slavery still is legal and blacks are perceived as disposable property rather than human beings. So her bloodline hampers her choices, and the manner in which she is viewed by those of her class. She may be moneyed, for example, but she is not allowed to socialize in the company of those who are guests in her home. Her presence among them simply would be too shocking.
What propels the film is the importance of change within a culture, if that change results in a more equitable world: a world in which slavery is abolished and individuals of different races may be free to socialize and fall in love, marry, and perhaps even live happily ever after.
Meanwhile, THE IMMIGRANT, set in 1921, is the tale of Ewa and Magda, Polish-born sisters who arrive at Ellis Island. They are separated when Magda is deemed to be tubercular, and is quarantined. Meanwhile, Ewa-- who is vividly played by Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard-- is left to her own resources on the hellish streets of Manhattan. She is horribly exploited and degraded by almost every man with whom she deals, from those who cross-examine her at Ellis Island to the individual who presents himself as her savior. He is a self-described "showman," but he is no Flo Ziegfeld. Instead, he runs the equivalent of a cheap strip show and, indeed, "pimp" would be a more accurate label for the way in which he exploits his "employees."
Simply put, all Ewa wants is to be happy, and be reunited with her beloved sister. But given her circumstances-- she is, after all, a penniless illegal immigrant-- she has no choice but to allow herself to be used. But still, Ewa-- as well as the title character in BELLE-- attempts to transcend her situation and dig deep within herself in order to embrace a better life, a more equitable existence. At one point, she utters a line that sums up her spirit and determination. That line is: "I am not nothing."
BELLE and THE IMMIGRANT are not ten-best-film material. BELLE occasionally is a bit too talky while some of the scenes in THE IMMIGRANT are carelessly scripted and over-the-top. Still, both films do offer thoughtful, once-upon-a-time portrayals of the predicaments of women.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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