For a brief, terrible moment in “Sweetness in the Belly,” you fear that icky-cutesy title is about to be spoken out loud. Describing the lilting sensation of new love, a character alludes to “a feeling right here,” as he gently taps his stomach — only for the film to mercifully cut away before he says the words themselves. It’s a decision that encapsulates what’s at once restrained and sincerely cornball about Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s polite melodrama, adapted from Camilla Gibbs’ 2006 novel about a white Muslim refugee of the Ethiopian Civil War, caught between the opposing cultures of her roots and her upbringing as she resettles in a London council estate. There’s a floridly sentimental heart fluttering beneath its tastefully solemn surface, but at times, you can’t help wishing the film would give in to its more expressive impulses.
If “Sweetness in the Belly” winds up feeling more empathetic than it is moving, the problem lies largely with its protagonist Lilly, a young woman swept up in complex, fascinating social turmoil who never quite emerges as complex or fascinating herself. She’s played with quiet diligence by Dakota Fanning, a casting coup that, prior to production, landed the film in hot water with Twitter users unacquainted with the film’s source material. The “Dakota Fanning to play Ethiopian refugee” headlines rather sanded off the nuances of the narrative, leading to unmerited bad publicity for a film that is nothing if not honestly invested in its culture: Ethiopian director Mehari broke through in 2014 with his Sundance-lauded arranged-marriage drama “Difret,” and his sophomore feature benefits considerably from his eye and ear for indigenous custom and community.
Yet the film still prompts an entirely valid, representation-oriented debate over whether a story chronicling the 1974 overthrow of the Ethiopian Empire and its fallout is best shown through the eyes of a white outsider, however exceptional her circumstances. Despite Fanning’s best efforts, Laura Phillips’ screenplay doesn’t make the strongest case for the passive, pious Lilly as its teller: At almost every turn, she’s surrounded and supported by Ethiopian women more charismatic and compelling than herself, some with equally knotty backstories.
Indeed, much of the most urgent drama in this pedantically flashback-riddled film unfolds in the past tense, beginning with how the blonde-haired, milk-skinned Lilly came to settle in Africa in the first place. Abandoned at the age of seven in a Moroccan Sufi shrine by British hippie parents (Sophie Kennedy Clark, Gavin Drea), she is raised by spiritual leader the Great Abdal (Estad Tewfik Yusuf Mohamed) as a dedicated Qu’ran scholar, all but oblivious to her European heritage. As a teenager, she undertakes a pilgrimage to Ethiopia, lodging with a humble family under the wary eye of local sheikh’s wife Gishta — played with sharp, scorched hostility by Edelework Tassew, making her the first of several women here whom we’d like to know better. Dreamy village doctor Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) takes a rather kinder interest in the pale outsider; cue a gentle, nervous romance.
“Do I risk the chance of paradise in the next life to be with you in this one?” Lilly frets insipidly, though she doesn’t have long to mull it over. Rising political tensions between military junta the Derg and anti-government rebels (Aziz riskily among them) force her to flee, joining the influx of refugees to Britain: ostensibly her homeland but alien territory in her mind, gray in all senses. There’s a film’s worth of material in that setup alone — and the Ethiopian scenes are certainly the liveliest here, energised by the sunburned pastels of Tim Fleming’s lensing and Mehari’s earthy, unforced sense of place and time.
Yet the bulk of “Sweetness in the Belly” centers on Lilly’s glum new life in London, which is rather less action-packed: Settling in a musty apartment with Ethiopian adversary-turned-ally Amina (the magnetic Wunmi Mosaku), she finds suitably virtuous work as a junior hospital nurse, desperately awaiting news of Aziz whilst resisting the chaste, charming advances of gawky British-Indian doctor Robin (“The Big Bang Theory” star Kunal Nayyar, given scarcely a sliver of a character to build on). Lilly’s largely interior journey of mourning and healing is shared with that of Amina — a more street-smart mother-of-two whose husband also went missing in the conflict, and who endured horrific abuse in the refugee camps.
It’s an easier arc to enliven in a novel than it is on screen. The script sidesteps some franker realities of both women’s stories, yet its subtleties of characterization aren’t rich enough to compensate: Lilly is such a dour, stoic presence throughout that even the passage of time softens to a blur. Mosaku’s Amina is the more vividly wounded, angry, loving presence, to the point that even the film’s climactic plot points are given over to her: There’s a sense here that bets have been hedged in the adaptation process, at some cost to the film’s focus and tension. Pleasant and picturesque throughout, “Sweetness in the Belly” is most affecting as a story where everyone is an outsider in some capacity. That just makes the outsider at its center a little hard to see, a little hard to feel: To dodge a phrase, she never gives you that feeling right there.