Director: Amma Asante
Runtime: 104 minutes
In one of the first scenes of Belle, the younger version of the title character gazes at a painting of an English nobleman and his black servant. The boy is painted submissively, so as to draw the attention to the important white figure and his commanding gaze. These works of art inform Amma Asante's sophomore feature at every turn, as she turns them on her head. The paintings used people of color to draw focus to white figures, while Asante's film uses a well-known white English cast to draw our focus to a biracial actress. That it does this in a fact-based story set in the 18th century is even more noteworthy. Deceptively radical in its approach to Austen-esque stories of love and manners, Belle is both a rewarding character study and a compassionate work of historical and social commentary.
Born of a slave woman and an English naval officer (Matthew Goode), Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is left by her father only hours after meeting him. Though Goode's Capt. John Lindsay shows Dido nothing but affection in their brief time together, he's unable to look after her. He leaves her with Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), the girl's uncle and aunt, albeit without first informing them of her race. Begrudgingly, the Mansfields accept the girl and treat her well, though they intend to hide her from society as long as possible. Sheltered at the Mansfield estate in the country, Dido grows close to Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), another charge left with the Mansfields.
Yet Dido's life starts to change as she reaches the age when aristocratic girls were expected to "come out" in order to secure a husband. Though financially secured thanks to her inheritance, Dido still struggles to navigate a society that reduces her to little more than "the black" or "the mulatto." As one character points out, the aristocrats will take any excuse they can to diminish or dismiss one of their ranks.
However, even with all of the outings and courtship rituals, Belle remains a lively piece of drama. Asante and Misan Sagay's script have captured the repressed manners of the time and place without making the actual film stiff or distancing. The issues of race, wealth, and power, are not always handled subtly, but they treated with intelligence and care. Some moments are overwrought thanks to Rachel Portman's lush, overwhelming score, but the film's noble intentions ultimately shine through.
A great deal of this comes down to newcomer Mbatha-Raw. In a sea of faces one expects to see in this sort of period drama, the biracial British actress is absolutely captivating, and not simply because of her "otherness" when placed among her cast mates. She has the right mix of poise and passion, to immediately grab and hold your attention. Though other characters (namely Gadon's Elizabeth) have their own legitimate struggles, Dido's are magnified and complicated by both her race and her illegitimacy. In one of the film's most powerful scenes, drawn from Asante's own experiences, Dido sits in front of a mirror and claws at her own skin, wishing she could simply disappear. Mbatha-Raw's radiant performance is captivating because it captures the essence of a typical Austen-heroine, while also infusing it with darker realities.
The rest of the cast fares quite well, especially Gadon as Dido's unofficial sister and Wilkinson as her uncle trapped between the status quo and deeply buried progressive notions. Mbatha-Raw's interactions with these two are among the film's best acted scenes. Gadon's Elizabeth, despite fitting the mould of a English rose, is without her own inheritance, thus making her less valuable as a potential match. In Elizabeth, we see a parallel as to how the treatment of women as property mirrored (though not nearly to the same degrading degree) the treatment of slaves. Things only get more complex when Dido becomes engaged while Elizabeth struggles to make any progress.
While scenes with Elizabeth show Dido interacting with things as they are, her time with Wilkinson is smartly used to build the story's more groundbreaking arc. Lord Mansfield, the highest ranking judge in England, has been asked to review a case of a slave ship that threw slaves overboard, claiming that there wasn't enough water to keep them all healthy. As such, the ship owners want payment from the insurers for the human cargo they "lost." The issue of the value of a human life, black or white, is what raises the narrative above the ordinary.
Asante's ability to balance the two sides of the story so well make Belle a lush, historically aware work. Neither side is shortchanged, and each is given the appropriate weight. In handling both halves so well, Dido's transformation is even stronger than it would have been if the focus had been primarily on one or the other. For all of the heaving bosoms, colorful gowns, and melodramatic outbursts, Belle is unique as period pieces go. In making the film feel like a straightforward period piece, despite its issues of race, Asante has turned the genre on its head. Belle doesn't need to be blatantly 'edgy' to stand out, because its simple toying with expectations accomplishes volumes more.