D: Amma Asante / 104m
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Penelope Wilton, Miranda Richardson, James Norton, Tom Felton, Matthew Goode
The illegitimate offspring of Royal Navy captain John Lindsay (Goode) and an African slave woman named Maria Bell, young Dido Elizabeth Belle is sent to live with his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson) and his wife (Watson) at Kenwood House. Despite her mixed race heritage, Dido is brought up as one of the family though some social – or possibly, household – conventions are upheld: Dido is unable to take part in dinner parties but is allowed to take coffee with guests afterwards. She grows up in the company of her cousin, Elizabeth, who is also a ward of Lord Mansfield. When both girls become of age, Dido (Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Gadon) expect to “come out” and find a husband. However, Lord Mansfield has other ideas: with Dido having received a substantial inheritance upon the death of her father, he feels that her financial independence would only frighten off any potential suitors; he wants her to stay on at Kenwood and run the household.
While Elizabeth attracts the attention of James Ashford (Felton), it is his brother, Oliver (Norton) who finds himself drawn to Dido. Unfortunately for Oliver, Dido has affections for John Davinier (Reid), a headstrong young lawyer-in-training who Lord Mansfield takes under his wing. When the two men fall out over a ruling Lord Mansfield has to give – he’s the Lord Chief Justice – on the matter of the Zong slave ship (where slaves were cast deliberately overboard to drown), Dido endeavours to help Davinier as much as she can. While the Mansfield household resides in London in their efforts to secure a husband for Elizabeth, Dido secretly meets with Davinier and his pro-abolitionist comrades and supplies them with as much information as she can about the case. As the time approaches for Lord Mansfield to give his ruling, Dido’s involvement is revealed and Oliver Ashford proposes marriage. With her future happiness hanging in the balance, Dido must decide if the life she requires will be dictated to her by social expectations or by her own desires.
Based – very, very, very loosely – on a true story, Belle is a handsomely mounted, beautifully lensed movie that tackles its subject matter with intelligence and a keen eye for the vagaries of the social hierarchy of Britain in the late 1700s. The ingrained racism of the times is depicted far more subtly than expected, and is best expressed in the actions and thoughts of Lord Mansfield as he displays public disgust over the concept and practice of slavery, but in the privacy of his own home, represses Dido with his notions of correct social etiquette (and that’s without mentioning the implicit sexism of his position as well). With the crusading Davinier to root for, and his “colour blindness”, the movie gives the viewer someone to help navigate the maze of 18th century politics, and just as Dido herself has an awakening in this matter, it’s one of the strengths of Misan Sagay’s heartfelt screenplay that matters become as clear as they do.
With the racism and the politics and the social niceties of the period so well rendered, it’s disappointing that the romantic aspects of the movie aren’t as strongly defined or developed. Elizabeth is the trusting young hopeful, an almost stock character of the period whose lack of experience with men is redeemed by her telling Dido, “We are but their property”. Against this, Dido is necessarily more confident and aware of the pitfalls of relationships though her confidence is established too easily, and there are times when the movie’s need for her to be a support for Elizabeth becomes irritating (Elizabeth isn’t exactly vapid but she is unremittingly naive). Davinier’s ardent pursuit of Dido is too avid at times, and his passion for both the cause of abolition and Dido’s freedom from social strictures, as written, leaves the character looking almost (but not quite) insufferable.
In the title role, Mbatha-Raw gives a perceptive, masterful performance that is both emotionally honest and fiercely intelligent, and she is skilfully supported by Wilkinson and Watson, the former imbuing a cleverly written and yet difficult character with sincerity and charm. Reid is earnest and declamatory (thanks to the script), and Gadon’s coquettish take on Elizabeth is occasionally affecting but she too is hindered by the restrictions of the script. Wilton, Richardson and Norton flesh out their roles to good effect but Felton is stifled by a character who is never allowed to be anything more than the stock villain (not only is he an outspoken racist but he assaults Dido as well, as if his odiousness was in some way in doubt).
In the director’s chair, Asante shows an assured and substantial understanding of the issues being examined, and is particularly impressive when exploring the curious anomalies of Dido’s life at Kenwood House. Under her committed and often powerful guidance, Belle overcomes its romantic Georgian soap opera elements to become a potent, articulate condemnation of a period in British history when endemic racism and the commerce of slavery was beginning to be challenged both socially and in law.
Rating: 8/10 – the aforementioned romantic elements and Rachel Portman’s often intrusive score aside, Belle is a vivid, impassioned look at the often complex life of a woman whose social position meant she was too low to eat with her family and at the same time, too high to eat with servants; a powerful, accomplished movie from a powerful, accomplished director.