The live-action adaptation of the 1991 Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast arrived in cinemas across the world at the end of February. Critics have been ambivalent in their reception of the film: Anthony Lane praised it for its ‘sheer dexterity’, whilst Wendy Ide moaned, ‘When a meal turns into a full-on Busby Berkeley-style dance routine featuring jitterbugging cutlery and can-canning china, there’s a sense of desperation, of a film too eager to justify its existence.’ Perhaps if Ide watched the 1991 original, or maybe even appreciated Disney for what it is (we only have look back to 2016’s The Jungle Book to find Bill Murray lending his vocal talents to a singing bear), she’d appreciate the je ne sais quoi of this adaptation. Led by Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as that grumpy old beast, Beauty and the Beast is a stunning re-imagining that is mythic in its approach, with a host of hints and references for the eagle-eyed eighteenth-century specialist especially. Last year, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) offered a certainly new take on the age of sensibility; aside from such parodies, fantastical stories are rarely given great historical specificity. Beauty and the Beast changes this, offering a highly stylized representation of the period, and this review hopes to indicate some of the topoi in the film that root the narrative in a period I’m sure we can all agree is rich in imaginative potential. So, we invite you to relax and pull up a chair as Criticks proudly presents… this review. (Yes, I am going to try and fit in a few song references – you have been warned).
Where the original opened with a narration set against a series of stained-glass windows explaining the curse, Condon’s production opens with Audra McDonald’s ‘Aria’ in an exquisite ballroom. The power and grandeur of the song establish the tone for the rest of the movie. A tale as old as time – or at least as old as the 1740 version published by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve – the film follows Belle as she becomes imprisoned in the Beast’s castle. Cursed by a witch after refusing her entrance on a cold night, the castle and all its servants have been transformed into objects, their master a hideous creature. Perhaps a fine example of Stockholm syndrome, Belle eventually falls in love with the Beast, and rejects Gaston (Luke Evans). Certainly, this makes for an exciting ride. The narrative concludes after a mob led by Gaston attacks the Beast’s castle and Belle saves her wounded captor. True love breaks the spell on the castle and all its inhabitants. Everyone ends happy, other than Gaston (spoiler: he dies).
The historical setting is mid- to late-century France, the rococo style prevalent in the intricacy and visual splendor of the ballroom. I only wish someone had told Ewan McGregor that his charming candelabra was from France: his accent is… well, he tries. But the design of the film is impeccable: Katie Spencer (set decorator), Jacqueline Durran (costumer designer) and Sarah Greenwood (production designer) have done a wonderful job in being true to the original animated designs but also making them more textured and intricate. From the marketplace in the ‘little town full of little people’, to the village tavern, or the multiple rooms in Beast’s castle (the library, the west wing, the ballroom or Belle’s bedroom), all the sets are beautiful and furnished to an incredibly high degree of accuracy.
As for actually locating Beauty and the Beast in the eighteenth century, there are a few points I wanted to note. First, anticipating the French Revolution and the guillotine, during ‘Be Our Guest’, Lumiere comments ‘After all miss, this is France’ and a poor piece of celery is cut in half on a chopping board. One of the interesting changes from the original was the inclusion of a backstory for Belle and her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline): we slowly learn that Belle’s mother was a victim of plague. Though they state the plague was in Paris, the Great Plague of Marseille during the 1720s seems the closest historical analogy. Similarly Gaston is a soldier from the war (his happy place is the battlefield, and thinking of blood and widows is how he calms down). Perhaps he fought in the Seven Years’ War. Yet, despite this historical vagueness, the film captures one prevalent concern in the eighteenth century: Belle’s reading. Female reading was seen as a problem throughout the period: on English shores, Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752) and George Colman the Elder’s Polly Honeycombe (1760) record the period’s concern for women reading. Belle’s notable ‘problem’, according to her fellow villagers, is that she always has ‘her nose stuck in a book’, which marks her as odd. Yet, as in Lennox and Colman, the heroine of Beauty and the Beast proves feisty and the library she finds in the Beast’s castle is one I’m sure we all envy.
The rococo aesthetic also influences the inhabitants of the Beast’s castle, and the acting talent represented through these figures is immense. When Kline’s Maurice picks up Cogsworth and Lumiere and praises both for the intricacy of their design it is hard to disagree. Mrs Potts is voiced by Emma Thompson, Cogsworth by Ian McKellen, Lumiere by Ewan McGregor, Madame de Garderobe by Audra McDonald, Cadenza by Stanley Tucci, Plumette by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chip by Nathan Mack. The song ‘Days In The Sun’, a new addition for this film, brings these voices together as the characters think about being human again and it registers an intense sense of longing. There’s something there that wasn’t there before. Emma Thompson tackles the titular song ‘Beauty and the Beast’. For anyone that has seen the original, Angela Lansbury looms large in all our fond memories, but Thompson certainly provides a commendable attempt. The design of all the objects is beautiful and, in a change from the original, the servants all become fully inanimate as antiques before turning back to living humans at the end. This was a surprisingly poignant moment. ‘Gaston’s Song’, sung by Luke Evans and Josh Gad (who plays LeFou), is infectiously catchy, and the finale, led by McDonald, offers a natural climax to the film.
Beauty and the Beast is spectacular in design and execution. The (albeit vague) attempts to situate the film within the eighteenth century are creditable and added an extra interest for when I sat down to watch the film for this review. Alan Menken’s music, both true to the original and at times different, is a treat for the ears alongside the visual feast. Grandiose is easily the term to describe Beauty and the Beast, the intricate sets, costumes and characters reminding us big kids to watch the fairy tale. Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes.
N.b. As a side note, I saw Beauty and the Beast at Century Cinema Clacton, my first visit there for around ten years. With tickets at £2.50, I just wanted to say how happy and impressed I was to see an independent cinema thriving and it was a real pleasure to return after so long.
Beauty and the Beast (dir. Bill Condon, 2017) was released in the UK on 17 March 2017.