Movie reviews: Belle, Oculus, Heaven is For Real

Belle ★★★★

Movie reviews: Belle, Oculus, Heaven is For Real

In 1769, as Belle (PG) opens, Britain was a sea-faring nation thriving on the trans-Atlantic slavery trade. Variously described as ‘mulatto’ and ‘illegitimate’, the young Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) finds a position in polite society courtesy of her father, the Royal Navy captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), and grows up under the protection of her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). Her skin colour apart, Belle’s concerns as he grows to maturity are those of any heroine of a Jane Austen-style period drama, as she strives to establish her independence in a patriarchal world. But Amma Asante’s film, which is based on a true story, adds an explicitly political twist to Belle’s personal dilemma: Lord Mansfield is also the Lord Chief Justice, and is about to make a landmark ruling on a case in which a ship’s captain deliberately drowned a cargo of slaves in order to dupe an insurance company. The intertwining of Belle’s experience of racism and the moral and legal ramifications of slavery isn’t entirely seamless, but Asante has created an engrossing period drama. Belle, played with deft restraint by Mbatha-Raw, silently seethes as she is forced to accept her status as a second-class human being. Wilkinson is superb as the conflicted Lord Mansfield, a man conscious of his professional and social responsibilities even as he chafes at the ill-treatment of his beloved Belle. Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Sam Reid and Matthew Goode contribute powerful performances to a handsomely made film.

The idea of a homicidal mirror sounds like a rather schlocky hook upon which to hang a horror flick, but Oculus (16s) is a much smarter film than it first appears. Aged 21, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) walks out of the psychiatric unit where he was incarcerated as a minor to discover that his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), has plans to exonerate him by confronting the mirror that Tim has claimed all along was responsible for the double killing of their parents. Kaylie hangs the mirror in a room she has primed for a scientific experiment and then allows it to work its malign magic. Is the mirror a portal through which evil flows, or does it reflect back the evil in human hearts? Adapted from his own short film by director Mike Flanagan, Oculus is a taut, claustrophobic tale that makes a virtue of what appears to be a micro-budget by condensing most of the action into a couple of rooms. Flanagan broadens out his story by flashing back to the past, and recounting the experiences of the younger Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and Tim (Garrett Ryan), and then cleverly overlaps the time-frames so that the younger and older characters appear to be occupying the same period in time. It’s a neat and very effective trick that suggests all the characters are simultaneously struggling against a timeless evil, and, courtesy of some superb editing, of accelerates the pace and ramping up the tension.

Heaven is for Real (PG) is based on the real-life experience of Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), a Job-like figure who suffers a crisis of faith when his four-year-old son, Colton (Connor Corum), emerges from an appendicitis operation to announce that he has been to heaven and met Jesus. Todd, his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly), and Todd’s congregation presume that Colton is giving a child’s-eye view of events entirely explicable by the science of near-death experiences, but soon Colton is telling verifiable stories about people he has met in heaven whom he couldn’t possibly have known. What’s fascinating about Randall Wallace’s film is that, for long stretches at least, its basic premise is treated by suspicion by all sides. The doubters, represented by psychologist Dr Slater (Nancy Sorel), dismiss Colton’s claims as childish embellishment; the Reverend Burpo is cautious about taking his son’s word as literal truth, but is equally determined to believe that Colton is speaking what he believes is truth; and Todd’s congregation largely reject the fairytale simplicity of Colton’s vision. Bolstered by likeably empathic performances from Kinnear, Reilly, Corum, Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale, the story begins to suffer credibility problems when Randall Wallace allows sentiment to take hold, which is when an emotionally charged tale of the ineffable becomes a contemporary parable for our times.

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