Editor’s note: There are many more movies than hours in the day and not enough time to write full reviews for them all. While Static and Screen will continue to write full reviews for major releases each week, older films and more minor limited releases will move to this capsule review format, giving you everything you need to know in more bite-sized chunks.
The movie: “Sweetness in the Belly”
The logline: “A moving story of Lilly (Dakota Fanning), a child abandoned in Africa as a child. Lily is forced to flee Ethiopia for England when civil war breaks. She befriends Amina (Wunmi Mosaku), an Ethiopian refugee who has fled the same war. Together they begin a mission to reunite people with their scattered families.”
What works: Based on a 2005 novel by Camilla Gibb, “Sweetness in the Belly” certainly has the makings of classic epic filmmaking. This decades-spanning tale involves forbidden love, the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution and the immigrant experience in Great Britain, and large swaths of it are quite interesting. There is a lot to like in its depiction of a historical event and culture that many Western viewers won’t be familiar with.
It helps that the film is helmed by an Ethiopian filmmaker, Zersesenay Berhane Mehari, who brings a local knowledge and an eye for indigenous custom and culture. Mehari’s contributions help the sometimes contrived story feel authentic and real. “Sweetness” is also a deeply empathetic film and one that explores a complex conflict from all angles.
The film also boasts an excellent supporting performance by the Nigerian-born Mosaku, who conveys deep internal pain as a survivor of the revolution. Mosaku gives a fierce, deeply committed and often radiant performance that elevates the entire picture. I sincerely hope that this isn’t her last English language film and that she can break through to the mainstream.
What doesn’t: One can’t help but feel that “Sweetness” is something of a missed opportunity – largely because it sidelines Mosaku’s Amina to focus primarily on Fanning’s Lilly, who is something of a blank slate. A lot of screen time is invested in Lilly’s largely interior journey of mourning and healing, which works on the page but is difficult to make interesting on screen.
This material might have worked with the right lead actress – Saoirse Ronan was in talks to play Lilly at one point- but Fanning lets down the material time and again. She gives a wan emotionless performance that keeps viewers at a distance. The same can be said for much of the other cast, including Yahya Abdul-Mateen of “Aquaman” and Kunal Nayyar of “The Big Bang Theory” as potential suitors of Lilly.
The often stiff performances are accompanied by a haphazardly nonlinear script that bounces between the past and present. This is clearly an attempt to bring a more artful approach to this material, but the charms of the original story are often lost in the confusing and jumbled mess.
Is it worth your time? If nothing else, you have to praise Mehari’s ambition, and the source material he’s working with is strong. There are moments – particularly in Mosaku’s performance- where you can see glimpses of the sweepingly romantic historical drama that “Sweetness in the Belly” (not rated, but with PG-13 sexual and violent content including discussion of rape) should have been.
But the jumbled script and flat performances sell “Sweetness in the Belly” short. It’s more well-meaning than it is moving, easier to admire than it is to like. It’s as dry as an Ethiopian winter and as listless as Fanning’s performance.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.