Although at times it feels like Amma Asante’s Belle is unwisely trying to be a Jane Austen period romance that never quite takes off, the film’s true to life trappings and some exceptional performances and wit save the film from ever becoming something it shouldn’t be. With a star making performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Asante’s keen ability to get to the heart of the racial and sexual issues at the heart of her story, it succeeds as an important bit of entertainment even if the history seems a bit suspect and farfetched.
Belle is the (mostly) true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Raw), a British heiress in late 1700s London with a frustratingly unusual status in society because of her skin colour. Born to a black mother and a white admiral father of wealth and nobility, Dido was left in the care of her grandparents: chief magistrate Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). When her father passes away at sea, he leaves Dido his fortune, making her incredibly wealthy and desirable to potential suitors, even more so than her white and equally orphaned and wedlock born cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who is essentially penniless. At the same time, however, Dido isn’t allowed to take in matters of polite society (eating at the table with guests around, courting young men in public) despite her value to the British economy.
Asante’s film is at its best when it sticks to anything other than romance or courtship, but even still those elements lead to some interesting comments on womanhood and the male capacity for deception and absence. A lengthy digression where Dido flirts with a strapping young man (James Norton) from a racist, old school family (with Tom Felton and Miranda Richardson as his brother and mother, respectively, both of whom should have moustaches they can twirl) never adds anything except minutes to the running time when it’s painfully obvious that the film would rather be focusing on more interesting subplots that can more readily bring the action to a more preordained conclusion.
Still, without this digression the relationship and tension between Dido and Elizabeth wouldn’t be nearly as interesting or balanced. To watch these two get torn apart more by status than by race adds an interesting undercurrent that does a better job of laying bare the relationship between the perception of slavery and its commercial use. Elizabeth only grows suspicious of her long time companion only after it becomes apparent that money makes people more desirable regardless of their skin colour. The circumstances of the characters mirror each other nicely, with their backgrounds remarkably similar if not for the fact that Dido’s birth parents actually loved her.
Much richer and more interesting is a plot thread involving Sam Reid’s budding lawyer and Lord Mansfield’s latest student and both men’s involvement in a crucial case involving a slave ship that drowned all of its human cargo at sea for potential insurance gains. It’s a landmark case in history that would take massive strides towards abolishing slavery in England, and seeing it told through Dido’s increasingly frustrated and confused perspective feels like the true heart of the film. Her budding relationship with the young abolitionist – the man she truly wants to be with – is a better love story, and her increasingly strained relationship to her kindly surrogate father also strengthens through these developments. These parts are exceptionally well crafted, directed, and staged fly on the wall styled looks at historical events that resonate far more than the mannered courting of the film’s first half.
Asante crafts an exquisite looking film, framing everyone to suggest a sense of isolation even when people are in crowded areas, and her use of natural light for certain sequences is nothing short of astonishing. Also despite some of the more off kilter elements to Misan Sagay’s screenplay, Asante delivers and assured sense of purpose and pacing throughout that never allows the film to be dull even when the story elements seem more obvious and on the nose than necessary.
But the film ultimately belongs to the radiant and confident performance of Raw. She plays Dido quite rightly as an intelligent learned woman just out of her teens who’s trying to find her way in a world that wants little to do with her. She brings Dido’s frustrations to the forefront slowly and not all at once. She’s a proper English lady, and not someone who suddenly woke up one morning to the realization that her status in life was less than ideal (although, admittedly that’s Raw bringing something to the film that isn’t in the script since the transition of Dido from young girl to refined lady is blown off in a single scene). Her intensity and intuition are consistently captivating, especially when she’s paired with Wilkinson, Gadon, or Reid. It’s just a shame that there’s precious little left over for veterans Watson and Richardson to do, both of whom seem to come off the sidelines only when needed before quickly being shuttled off the field again.
Belle might occupy a kind of stylistic middle ground between Emma and 12 Years a Slave, but that hardly invalidates Asante and Raw’s intent and purpose. It’s an assured piece of work telling a story that hasn’t really been told before on screen. It could be considerably better if it excised some of its more standard and stock costume drama storytelling elements, but it’s still pretty great.