Paul Greenwood's movie reviews - Belle; Oculus; Devil's Knot; The Young & Prodigious T.S. Sprivet

Belle (12A, 104 mins)

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Colin Firth stars in Devil's Knot.
Colin Firth stars in Devil's Knot.

Belle (12A, 104 mins)

Director: Amma Asante

4 stars

Hanging in Scone Palace near Perth is a painting by Johann Zoffany of Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Belle.

It's very unusual for an 18th century portrait in that it depicts a black woman standing side by side, and on equal footing, with a white woman.

But then Dido Belle was by no measure a conventional person, as this stirring dramatisation of her life testifies.

It begins in 1769 with naval officer Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) collecting a young girl from her poor dockyard surroundings.

She's his illegitimate daughter with a slave who has recently died, and Lindsay takes Dido to live with his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson) at their estate.

There she is raised alongside Elizabeth, the daughter of another nephew of Lord Mansfield and grows to a young woman, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

Though she's raised as part of the family, and pretty much a sister to Elizabeth, Dido's colour always hangs over her. In everyday life she's one of them, yet she's not allowed to dine with them when they have guests.

This affords an insightful look at the character of a family who love her, but who are bound by the manners and mores of the period.

It's delves deep with a crisp script that gracefully but firmly tackles the conflict of her place and of the position of women in general in 18th century society.

Since Elizabeth's father has remarried, she has no inheritance due when Lord and Lady Mansfield die, and is often regarded as little more than property.

This does lead to a bit of a sag in the middle as the various gentlemen courting Elizabeth and Dido circle around and marriages are wrangled.

Indeed, given the import of surrounding events, it could be argued that it detracts slightly from the bigger picture.

Because as well as being Dido's guardian, Lord Mansfield is also the Lord Chief Justice, and happens to be presiding over the landmark case of the Zong, a slave ship where the captain had the slaves thrown overboard and then attempted to claim the loss from insurers.

But this is the 1780s, still over 20 years before the abolition of the slave trade in the UK, and before such activities had been established as illegal.

Dido's role in this is pivotal, and this is a film that belongs completely to Mbatha-Raw, strong and confident at its centre. As John Davinier, a legal associate of Lord Mansfield and one of Dido's would-be suitors, Sam Reid is a little too excitable, but Wilkinson is a steady hand.

And at a time when films about slavery are ensuring that audiences never forget, this is another important addition.

See it if you liked: Amazing Grace, Lincoln, The Duchess

Oculus (15, 103 mins)

Director: Mike Flanagan

3 stars

Scotland's Karen Gillan takes to Hollywood for this passable psychological horror that doesn't offer much that's new, but which holds the attention thanks to committed performances.

Gillan is very watchable indeed as Kaylie, whose younger brother Tim has just been released from a psychiatric hospital where he's been since a family tragedy a decade before.

She's convinced that this was caused by the evil spirit inside a haunted mirror in their home, and so takes them both back there to try to prove it.

This plays out over a series of occasionally confusing but generally quite smart flashbacks and flash-forwards as we see what happened when Kaylie and Tim were young, alongside them trying to record whatever phenomenon is at work, if indeed one exists.

The attempts at scares are loud and cheap, and the scenario can feel repetitive after a while, but the question of which of them is the crazy one keeps it ticking over and it comes good in the end.

See it if you liked: Mirrors, The Unborn, The Quiet Ones

Devil's Knot (15, 114 mins)

Director: Atom Egoyan

2 stars

The true-crime case of the West Memphis Three has already been covered in several documentaries, including West of Memphis in 2012.

There's little then to be brought to the discussion by this clunky dramatisation of events that took place in Arkansas in 1993, when three young boys went missing at the titular Devil's Knot.

Three young men are arrested and the community cries Satanism, which gives the film's trailer a specious opportunity to sell it like much more of a thriller than it is.

Reese Witherspoon emotes impressively as one of the boy's mothers, but Colin Firth is badly miscast as a lawyer, dodgy deep-south accent and all, who is divorcing for no good plot-related reason.

He gets involved as an investigator on the case, with the film often presented like a box of evidence, filled with names and dates and interviews.

It hits a bit of a rut after an arresting opening, so that what was directed with chilly precision becomes perfunctory and cumbersome, and it's when emotions start to run high that it starts to slip. There's still a reasonable mystery at its heart, and as a portrait of an insular community with a fear of the different it manages one or two effective moments but remains ultimately unsatisfying.

See it if you liked: Prisoners, Gone Baby Gone, West of Memphis

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (12A, 105 mins)

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

3 stars

With a title that's unlikely to have patrons battering down the doors of their local cinema, this decidedly odd family drama is going to have its work cut out finding an audience.

It doesn't help itself by adopting a tonally uneven approach, opening in glorious pastel shades and pinging off into various strands of whimsy, all the while hiding a deeper melancholy and intent.

The young T.S. Spivet of the title (played by Kyle Catlett) is a smart and imaginative young boy, an inventor who lives with his family on a farm in Montana, including his scientist mother (Helena Bonham Carter). It's a hard one to pin down, but once the narrative settles it becomes a road trip as T.S. makes his way to Washington to accept a prize.

Though it's low on actual plotting and more a serious of episodes as he rides the rails and has adventures, there's a hint of Wes Anderson and a real sense of Roald Dahl, of a world where kids are smarter than adults. Its ability to largely resist sentiment is successful as a mask for the darker elements under the surface, but what's missing a lot of the time is fun and it flounders badly in the final stages.

See it if you liked: The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Micmacs, Amelie

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