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Beauty Times Two: Only Lovers Left Alive and Belle

Twice-told tales of bloodlust and bloodlines

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Tilda Swinton was born--or, quite possibly, rose from the dead--to play a vampire. This Oscar-winning chameleon has made below-average (Constantine), palatable (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and flavorsome films (Michael Clayton) downright spicy. In her latest incarnation as a bloodsucker, in the steady pulse of Only Lovers Left Alive, she invites us to sink our own teeth into what may be her most savory performance to date.

Swinton dials down her already-pale flesh tone but pumps up her bloodlust as Eve to Tom Hiddleston's (The Avengers) Adam. The two are children of the '60s but could be of the 1560s or 1660s--even their most recent anniversary photograph was taken in the 1860s. But Adam and Eve have been sleeping in separate bedrooms of late: hers in Tangier, Morocco, his in a futuristic Detroit, Mich. Eve spends her nights (days are definitely out of the question) in all-night cafes with fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who, five centuries later, is still whining about not getting proper due for William Shakespeare's canon. Eve is Marlowe's muse while Marlowe is Eve's supplier: He has the line on the "good stuff" or superb human blood.

But half a world away, Adam is down in the dumps, which here, are the ruins of a vast Detroit apartment, filled with stacks of wax and axes--or vinyl records and vintage guitars. Adam's walls are filled with photographs of what we're led to believe are earlier acquaintances, such as Buster Keaton, Robert Johnson and Mark Twain. And like Eve, Adam doesn't stoop to slovenly neck-bites for nourishment; he, too, has a supplier in the form of Doctor Watson (Jeffrey Wright), who makes regular withdrawals from a local blood bank. But Adam's immortality, as well as his type O-negative blood, is wearing thin, so Eve makes a transcontinental trip (probably booking red-eye flights) to bring some life back into a quite-dead marriage with some rather atypical couple's therapy: dancing, intense sex and sucking the occasional blood popsicles to beat the heat.

But things take a turn when Eve's snot-of-a-sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Motown, insisting she would like mo' from the town, leading the trio on a rather unpleasant pub crawl with some nasty consequences.

Only Lovers Left Alive is more style than story but that works well in the capable hands of writer-director par excellence Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Mystery Train, Night on Earth). Of particular note in Jarmusch's latest film, perhaps his best, is a stunningly diverse soundtrack which includes the likes of Wanda Jackson and Paganini. Speaking of music, Jarmusch bravely, but perfectly, pauses his story for two full live performances: one from hard rock group White Hills in Detroit and another from Lebanese singing star Yasmine Hamdan in Tangier.

Overall, Only Lovers Left Alive is a film that embraces behavior, wit and refinement that feels as if it belongs to a distant era. But Jarmusch's story is not so much melancholy as it is wistful longing for a greater appreciation of artistic beauty.

And the flesh-and-blood (quite literally) beauty is Swinton as Eve--a tall, cool glass of plasma, with the eyes of age but a heart full of loneliness. She's at the top of her game here; Only Lovers Left Alive is not to be missed.

You're also well advised to carve out some time for Belle, a gorgeous costume drama inspired by a little-known but historic 1779 painting that today hangs in Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland. The painting depicts two young women: Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Belle, who grew up as close as sisters. In the painting, Elizabeth's hand lies gently on Dido's waist with familiarity, even affection; and it is believed to be the only painting of its kind from its era, because Lady Elizabeth was white and Dido was black. Both smiling young ladies were dressed in the finest of silk and pearls and presented as equals.

Belle tells the fascinating back-story of that painting: the true tale of an 18th century illegitimate daughter of an African slave and Admiral Sir John Lindsay, a British naval commodore who sailed the seas of the West and East Indies and once entertained the King and Queen of England on his flagship. But Admiral Lindsay sent Dido (portrayed by the stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw) away to England to be raised by a great-uncle who, at the time, was the lord chief justice of both England and Wales. Dido is cherished and loved in her household but rarely afforded the privileges of others--she was too high-born to mingle with commoners but too dark-skinned to break bread, even with her own family. This first-rate film, from director Amma Asante (Belle is only her second feature), expertly blends a story of privilege, justice, class and even romance as Dido is torn between a beau that is presented as an advantageous society match and a passionate abolitionist.

Rounding out the cast are Sarah Gadon (superb as Lady Elizabeth), Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson. Belle's costumes are Oscar-caliber, and this delicious-to-the-eyes spectacle includes a dash of Merchant-Ivory, a spoonful of Jane Austen and a generous half-cup of Downton Abbey.

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Director: Jim Jarmusch

Producer: Jeremy Thomas, Reinhard Brundig, Christos Konstantakopoulos, Jean Labadie, Bart Walker, Stacey Smith and Peter Watson

Cast: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright, Slimane Dazi and Carter Logan

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Official Site: www.foxsearchlight.com/belle

Director: Amma Asante

Writer: Amma Asante and Misan Sagay

Producer: Damian Jones, Steve Christian, Julie Goldstein, Steve Norris, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross and Christopher Collins

Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Emily Watson, Tom Felton, James Norton and Matthew Goode