“The acting and direction are very much capable… [w]hat gives me pause about Belle is the screenplay.”
by Ken B.
Here is a stately, handsome movie. It’s set in England, the late eighteenth century, upon an aristocratic estate and class, and in particular the family of Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. The major societal threat and revelation at the start of the film – the one that gives Belle its title, is the development that Lord Mansfield’s nephew, the navy admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), has fathered a child with a woman on an African slave ship. His daughter is called Dido Elizabeth Belle, and as a young adult, she is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Dido grows up in a privileged environment, forming a close bond with her white half-sister Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). A peculiar recurring element, Dido notices, is how Elizabeth is often permitted to be in the dining room with guests who visit for dinner, but the biracial Dido cannot, and must eat in another room, waiting to join the group when they move into the parlor afterwards. The Mansfields do this out of an unwillingness to break society’s rules placed on racial relations, and often not being able to risk such a violation when the professional or personal stakes of the meeting are high.
When a high profile case comes before Lord Mansfield, involving the Africans aboard a British slave ship who, when the boat began to sink, where thrown overboard by the crew and left to drown, Dido takes a heavy interest in the case and believes that with relatively little effort, Lord Mansfield can formulate a ruling that will come as a massive blow to the slave trade. And simultaneously, as Dido moves into adulthood, she cannot remain stowed away, out of sight forever. To relative surprise, she gains the attention of Oliver Ashford (James Norton), but is torn between him and John Davinier (Sam Reid), who is studying under Lord Mansfield at the estate.
Belle is essentially your basic British costume drama, but it includes the added element of a racial minority thrust into an overwhelmingly white environment in significantly unenlightened times. Indeed, Dido Elizabeth Belle was a very real person, who lived from 1761 to 1804, and she can be seen, depicted with her half-sister Elizabeth Murray, in a 1779 painting which plays a part towards the end of the movie. Director Amma Asante does a good job at showcasing the characters and visual environment, as well as allowing her actors to flourish and develop their roles to the best of their ability. That’s all well and good, and you’ll hear no complaint from me here. The most notable performance comes from the lead, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, largely unknown by audiences outside of the UK before the release of this film. Despite playing a character essentially disallowed by her circumstances to have any genuine or substantial emotional release, much is conveyed through the subtleties of the delivery of her dialogue, and the result is a showing of remarkable depth and nuance. Her supporting actors, which include the aforementioned Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, and Miranda Richardson, all work at the marvelous capacity we have come to know them for.
The acting and direction are very much capable, as you have likely inferred. What gives me pause about Belle is the screenplay, written by Misan Sagay. It gets all of the facts in order and presented in a followable way, and it isn’t too long either, with the film as a whole coming in at 104 minutes, which is just about right, but when it comes to a thorough examination of what it’s very likely the real Dido Belle experienced, it comes up disappointingly short. There’s only one moment shown where she is on the receiving end of genuine racial hostility, and even that seems to be rushed over, as if the movie is afraid of dwelling on the concept of showing unpleasantness head-on, as opposed to mentioning it in more opaque passing reference. This is not an implication that the movie should be something it is not. All I’m saying is that for Belle to fully acknowledge the difficulties and injustice that someone in Dido’s situation would face, despite her living in the upper class, and all but refuse to depict it head on or with any real substance, is a bit of a curious oversight in the storytelling department. I wouldn’t have minded if the movie was simply about individual aspects of her and her family’s life, but since the script raises the issue in numerous occasions, I expected a bigger dissection.
But Belle is a fine film, and what Sagay and Asante achieve should be commended. Bringing interest to an overlooked historical figure is a noble task, and doing so in a way that generates real interest from a modern audience takes real work. There’s just that persistently nagging feeling of a thematic exclusion, as if what we are shown is a mere primer for a more meaty and fuller look at the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle. Yet, this is it. When all is said and done, you’re left feeling a little empty. At the same time, however, it looks great – well-framed, lit, and with a magnificently costumed cast – it is acted well, and contains the distinction of being a major movie with a large cast that is written and directed by not only people of color, but women of color. In a cinematic industry still very much ruled by an encompassing glass ceiling for races and genders, it’s a meaningful observation.