Beauty and the Beast

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Bill Condon

Starring

Dan Stevens Emma Watson Luke Evans

Anticipation.

Frankly, there’s not that much here to tickle the cinematic tastebuds.

Enjoyment.

The material is played with a very straight bat, but this is still a total delight.

In Retrospect.

Its success is guaranteed. Even Ewan McGregor is good.

This luxuriant live-action refit of the beloved animated feature sees Disney extend its recent winning streak.

Rampant misogyny. Spousal abuse. Sexual frustration. Suicidal depression. Narcissism. Racism. Destructive parochialism. Anti intellectualism. Maybe it’s just down to timing and the current State That We Are In, but this luxuriant, spit-shined screen version of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 baroque fable is a Beauty and the Beast de nos jours.

Maybe not to the point where it should herald a new wave of militantly politicised Disney features covertly espousing forthright liberal values. But these ideas are there, nestling provocatively beneath the gossamer surface. They are there for those with the inclination to grab at them.

What’s interesting about the film is that it never pushes these weighty themes too stubbornly. It never packages them up and presents them, transforms them into statements. They are implicit within the central melodrama whose prime focus is to make the viewer think and feel that romance is the be-all and end-all of this film, and of life itself. Veteran director Bill Condon clearly hasn’t opted to make a political film, or even bring a personal touch to the material. He seems more like an avatar than a director. It’s more that in selling a story which is so naturally loaded with rich, subtextual goodness, this vital added value is hardwired into the celluloid.

As with most so-called “innocent” entertainment which dares to dabble in the practice of actually saying something about how we live (and how we perhaps should live), you do worry there will be trolls lurking in the digital undergrowth and waiting to pounce. How long will it be before futuro-Nazi foot-soldiers are directing hateful invective towards Emma Watson’s progressive poppet, Belle, who rejects the oppressive, musclebound asshat Gaston (Luke Evans, on fine form) in favour of bookish emo-gargoyle, Beast (Dan Stevens)? But hey, would it also be too cynical to think that lighting a small fire under the crazies could result in a tidy marketing surge for the film and connect it to an audience looking for more than superficial razzle-dazzle?

For better and for worse, Watson appears like the perfect choice to play Belle in a film about a woman’s right to choose her destiny. She has the rugged comportment of a weary Land Girl, and her dialled-back performance resists the doe-eyed compliance that is often required of the classic ‘Disney Princess’. She is a woman of letters, dedicated to studious activities. She skips through her village with a distressed hardback, in quiet search of intellectual equals. Her pangs of desire for Beast eventually rise to the fore when he take her on a tour of his vast personal library. The message of this film: books before looks.

As a performer, you could maybe accuse Watson of being a tad cold, but frankly it works for the role. There’s the sense that she’s in control of the situation rather than just being swept along on pure impulse. She doesn’t experience a convenient change in character and end up bowing to subservience. One of loveliest moments is a call-back to a dinner sequence where she sips soup daintily from a spoon while Beast aggressively dunks his face into the bowl. Instead of either accepting a correct way to eat soup, they silently devise a method that satisfies both parties.

Formally, the film is functional rather than radical. It glances back as far as the 1991 animated version rather than to Jean Cocteau’s magical, erotic masterpiece from 1946. If anything, the whistle-friendly operetta show tunes push the film closer to what feels like a filmed stage adaptation than a full-on cinematic experience, which works in its favour. For a tale of such bracing simplicity, the camera does move too much, always creeping or swooping where a simple, restful still shot would’ve sufficed. The film’s most moving instances are Beast’s muffled expressions while reacting to dialogue or glancing out mournfully over the icy tundra.

This is unapologetically a “Disney” film, and while that might be off-putting for those hankering for original and surprising cinema, it’s fascinating that the studio has developed this unique imprint for themselves. It’s become a byword for a certain type of robust high quality. One thing you can say about their productions is that they seldom look cheap. They leave you with the impression that, whatever creative decisions have been made, they are executed in the most effective way possible.

Sometimes it’s the decisions themselves that are questionable, but the reaction of watching a film like Beauty and the Beast is that never allows the viewer to question, or even think about, the value of its technical credentials. It’s a film that is entirely comfortable in its own body, which is both pleasing and fitting.

Published 3 Mar 2017

Tags: Dan Stevens Disney Emma Watson

Anticipation.

Frankly, there’s not that much here to tickle the cinematic tastebuds.

Enjoyment.

The material is played with a very straight bat, but this is still a total delight.

In Retrospect.

Its success is guaranteed. Even Ewan McGregor is good.

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