FILM REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast (2017)
For women of several generations, Belle is cited as their favourite heroine and I count myself as one of them. If you were a bookworm, felt a little off kilter, and saw Beauty and the Beast when you were a child, there's a good chance you are too. She's beloved, as is the film in which she features, a groundbreaking animation in many ways. It is one of Disney's masterpieces. When Disney embarked on their live-action remakes, a Beauty and the Beast one was inevitable and it has now arrived in cinemas.
It begins as all fairytales must; with a once upon a time... there was a prince (Dan Stevens) who lived in a castle. Spoilt and cruel, his refusal to admit an elderly woman into his home to shelter from a storm proves to be his undoing because she's actually an enchantress who decides to curse him. The Prince is turned into a monstrous beast and his household servants become enchanted furniture. He is left with but one way to break the spell; he must learn to love another and earn their love in return before the last petal on an enchanted rose falls. Enter Belle (Emma Watson), who sacrifices her freedom for her father's (Kevin Kline) and is forced to live with the Beast. Could she be the one to break the spell?
The first thing to note about this live action version is how opulent it is. From the opening ball scene to the Gothic decay of the Beast's castle, everything looks stunning. Even the village is a quintessential pastoral painting, vibrant with detail and design. The depiction of the furnitured-servants is particularly well-wrought, such as Lumiere's swirling frock coat and Cogsworth's literal clock face (I'm also a big fan of Cogsworth's waddle of a walk). Director Bill Condon offers up gorgeous sweeping shots so an audience can drink it all in. It's a gigantic visual feast of a film and even if you fail to be enraptured by the ongoing plot, you can still relish the pictures unfolding before you.
Adapting the tale, writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos seek to do bigger things thematically. Humanity, or rather the loss of it, is really brought to the fore in the expanded roles of the servants. The parallels and differences between the Beast and Gaston are highlighted further as a result and little shifts in character development, such as granting LeFou more of a conscience than his cartoon counterpart, gives the film a richer sense of the people within it. The expansion of Belle and Maurice's relationship and the sketching in of their family history adds a poignancy to Belle's longing for freedom and her father's protectiveness.
This back story, as well as the added history for the Beast, furthers the depth of the relationship between the Beast and Belle. Their proximity is no longer their only common ground. Their loneliness is paralleled with a similar desire for escape, the Beast is also a big reader, and the big library moment carries more weight as a result. In the animated version, their relationship is developed through a montage, culminating in the ballroom scene, which works perfectly for the kind of pace that narrative was operating at. In this new version, their relationship is afforded a few scenes during which they get to know each other and it feels like an organic development of mutual affection.
It helps that Watson and Stevens have a nice, gentle chemistry through the CGI of the Beast. Watson's Belle is passionate and forthright, standing up to just about everyone who attempts to cross her. Her singing voice is a bit thin in comparison to those around her, but Watson performs the songs well so it hardly detracts. Stevens is a standout, conveying a cold character's journey back to a warmth and humanity he had long forgotten.
Relationships in all aspects of the film are more rounded out and the servants are particular beneficiaries of this. We see Mrs Potts and Chip interacting more as mother and son, the former trying desperately to comfort a child who wishes to be a boy again. Lumiere and Plumette's flirtation becomes its own little love story, torn apart by the curse and desperate to be reunited in human form. Now infamously, LeFou and Gaston's friendship has been given an added subtext (which, I must confess, I always assumed to have been there watching it as an older viewer).
Performance-wise, the supporting cast are universally a riot. When Luke Evans as Gaston was announced, it could hardly have been more perfect and he cuts a fabulous, bullish narcissist throughout. The work of Josh Gad as LeFou is a real highlight, taking a pathetic sycophant and turning him into someone to root for. Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, and Emma Thompson bring a real warmth to their characters, whilst Ian McKellen is as reliable as ever as the fussy Cogsworth. Lastly, his French accent might terrible, but Ewan McGregor barnstorms his way through 'Be Our Guest' and the rest of the film with such obvious relish, it's hard not to get swept along with him.
The new version of Beauty and the Beast will be divisive - the original is too beloved for it not to be - but it is admirable in its desire to honour the film on which it is based as well as expand its own version of the story. For me, it worked on all levels and hopefully, this new Belle, in her own determined independence, will inspire a whole new generation of girls.