Belle follows the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral (Matthew Goode, in a brief yet sympathetic appearance) who is left in the care of her Supreme Court Judge uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and aunt Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson), to be raised alongside her equally illegitimate cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Throw into the mix the blunt spinster aunt Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilkinson), and you’ve almost got yourself a Jane Austen novel (Mansfield Park springs to mind). Except – Dido’s mother was a slave, and Dido herself is mixed race.
Cut to several years later, and Dido’s father has passed away, leaving her a sizeable fortune and making her quite the desirable heiress. Elizabeth is penniless and in need of a husband – the London season calls. But amidst these overused tropes of bodice-and-bonnet dramas, there are some political stirrings – Lord Mansfield is presiding of the Zong case, an insurance settlement involving a shipment of slaves who were thrown overboard, worth more to their owners dead than alive. The case could be landmark in defeating the slave trade, but would anger some very powerful traders. Enter John Davinier (Sam Reid), an idealistic student and pupil of Lord Mansfield’s who actively campaigns against the slave trade and shows Dido that she has been protected from the real world til now. At the same time, the dastardly Ashford’s enter the scene, with the scheming Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) looking to snag a new fortune for her sons, the haughty James (Tom Felton), who toys with Elizabeth, and the superficial Oliver (James Norton). When Oliver proposes to Dido, she is presented with the choice between a good and respectable position in society, something that would not normally be afforded to someone of her background, and love with the less respectable Davinier, as well as social responsibility to do what she can to end the traffic in human life.
Belle presents us with a lot of injustices behind a seemingly civilised society, a facade that is all too quickly torn away. The position of women, the issue of slavery and class divides all come to a head in a relatively short time (the film clocks in at just under two hours). It’s a compellingly true story and a striking juxtaposition – the precision and delicacy of a costume drama rendering with the volatility of race, gender and class relations. We see that Dido, despite her fortune, is still not allowed to dine with her family. Elizabeth is forced to run around town after potential suitors and spinster Mary is resigned to the fact that she will never marry, nor will she ever be independent. Meanwhile John hopes to be a lawyer but as the son of a clergyman, cannot hope to achieve a “gentleman’s profession” without Lord Mansfield’s sponsorship; while James can be as repulsive as he likes, simply by virtue of his birth. And always in the background looms the Zong case, and its implications for the treatment of human rights, and humans, in the 18th century. All of this is conveyed through the aesthetically pleasant trappings of a period drama, highlighting just how unpleasant it really is.
In terms of its design , Belle is very much in the style of more recent costume dramas. It doesn’t quite give us the mud of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, or the drab palette of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre – there are still plenty of gorgeous dresses and high society gatherings to look at. But it is certainly without the heaving bosoms and campness that we’ve come to expect from costume dramas. So many of this genre absolutely revel in the floridness of their prose, and while there are plenty of “Miss Murray” and “Mister Davinier” to tide over those who came for the wigs and the skirts, the prose is much more in service of the narrative, and not just the period. There is a consistency and thoughtfulness to the design – for example, Gadon as Elizabeth appears almost exclusively in blue, and Mbatha-Raw in red – that evidences the consideration that has gone into the crafting of the film. To a certain extent, you can bluff a costume drama – as long as you put enough big dresses, fluttering fans and knowing laughs on screen, you can get away with a lot. But Belle has so much more in its mind, and Asante gives us a rich yet restrained world in which to explore it.
Slavery has been the subject of a number of films across time, and in recent years – from its pulp and genre treatment in Django Unchained to the artful realism of Twelve Years A Slave. Belle has far more in common with Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, following the political machinations around the legislation of slavery in a period setting, rather than following the experiences of a slave. But Belle differs on one very important point – it places a black protagonist at the forefront of the film. While the narrative is still enabled and justice administered through an old white male character who is inspired by young white male character, at least a point is made of Dido’s limited agency. She may be a rich heiress with a score to settle, but she is nevertheless helpless in the face of the white patriarchy. With Tom Wilkinson very much representing a loveable but curmudgeonly Old England making way for Sam Reid’s passionate, revolutionary young England, you do have to wonder where Dido fits in all of this. And that’s kind of the point.
But ultimately, it’s an easy argument to make. Slavery was bad. Slavery remains bad. Women, people of colour and the lower classes were systematically mistreated at the hands of a white patriarchy – in many cases, still are. These are not new points to be making. They are not unpopular points to be making. But they are very important.
Belle‘s greatest strength is not the argument that it makes against slavery. It’s the way in which it does it. Asante takes a trite and typically trivial and superficial form, in which narratives generally turn on whether or not the nice rich young man will marry to the nice but slightly headstrong girl, and uses it to place a black, female character at the centre of a slavery narrative. In this way Asante explores subjugation in its many forms, from marriage and the social expectation thereof, to the very real trade in human flesh, and to some extent the halt of upward mobility.
Mbatha-Raw shines as Belle, grounding the film with an accessible performance of a character trapped on all sides. Wilkinson is like the grandfather you always wanted, making you feel quite safe to leave the law in his hands. Sam Reid can be somewhat two-dimensional as the perpetually-passionate Davinier (he’s just so damned decent), but is ultimately likeable. Tom Felton returns to his Draco Malfoy roots with a truly horrible character that does not bode well for type-casting, and Miranda Richardson calls to mind her Queen Elizabeth in Black Adder, giving the most “period” performance of the piece and visibly enjoying it. Emily Watson is sadly underused, while Penelope Wilton is very much in Downton Abbey mode. Sarah Gadon is good but ultimately limited – it is a shame that the relationship between Dido and Elizabeth is comparatively underdeveloped. Ostensibly the starting point of the film is a portrait made of the real Elizabeth and Dido, and their relationship should be a crucial anchor, for the narrative, but it often comes across as the least nuanced, reduced to surmountable jealousies and quick resolutions.
Straddling an awkward divide between parasols and politics, Belle is an enjoyable and likeable film with heart. While it doesn’t take on anything truly groundbreaking, it does give us a satisfying new use for a tired form, and an vital new positioning of an important history.
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