“Belle” is good, old-fashioned filmmaking—its story laid out in neat, straightforward lines, its production values handsome, and its cast so engaging that they bring to life what might have been a fairly static period costume drama. Viewers familiar with the heyday of Merchant-Ivory films of the 1980s and ‘90s—A Room With A View, Howards End, Maurice, The Remains of the Day—or the better film realizations of Jane Austen’s novels, such as Emma Thompson’s award-winning screenplay of Sense and Sensibility directed by Ang Lee, may find Belle less substantial and less psychologically complex than those superb adaptations, but the comparison, however inevitable, may be unfair or at least irrelevant. For starters, Belle is not adapted from a great novel. It is based on a true story and has a relatively unsung historical truth to tell. It does so with footloose liberty and equal measures of moralized historical fantasy, social conscience, love and politics. For whatever it’s not, however, and for whatever its pretty, pictorial treatment does not make up for in depth, Belle manages ultimately to disarm and satisfy as entertainment. This is due to the expertise of an A-list supporting cast that includes Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, and Miranda Richardson; the appeal of young British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role; and the wonderful Tom Wilkinson in one of the most subtly seasoned and moving performances of his distinguished career.
Dido Elizabeth Belle (Mbatha-Raw) was the biracial daughter of an 18th century British Royal Navy admiral, raised—when her father goes to sea and later dies—by her great-uncle William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and lord chief justice of England and Wales (Wilkinson), and his wife, Lady Mansfield (Watson). Belle is called Dido in her new life, and she grows up with her cousin Marie Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). The girls are inseparable but not equal. Belle lives in luxury and is loved but, as a mulatto, she exists in a rather bizarre, rarefied no-man’s-land—a station too elevated for her to consort with the servants but a little lower than the rest of the family. She is an exotic special case, half aristocratic, half not fully worthy. As the girls approach marriageable age, the situation becomes even more complicated when Belle receives simultaneously news of her father’s death and a sizable inheritance.
As the film enters Jane Austen territory—with the defining late 18th Century socio-political marriage questions of which suitors will inherit a title, which have money, which have neither or both, which young ladies have dowries, and what’s love got to do with it—director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay conflate the romance with the Zong massacre case, in which 142 African slaves were thrown overboard, drowned in their chains, by the British slave ship Zong. Dido becomes more conscious of her black identity as she listens to the impassioned anti-slavery rhetoric of John Davinier, a vicar’s son who falls in love with her (Sam Reid, also currently appearing in The Railway Man). The two then try to influence her uncle Lord Mansfield’s judgment in the famous case—which turned less on the moral question of slavery than on the legal technicalities of whether the insurers would have to pay or that the murder was perpetrated by the ship owners in the interest of defrauding their insurors. Rarely has one had such cause to root for an insurance company.
Ben Smithard’s cinematography, burnished and over-ripe, lends heft to the sometimes coffee-table-book script, giving it a bit more sense of history urgently poised. And Mbatha-Raw, who grew up in Oxford and is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, gives her rather expository lines fine shadings of her character’s fundamental contradictions—a woman born to privilege, to the gender limitations of a class system, and to a society in which she attains worth as an heiress even as she must face prejudice because of her race.
Wilkinson intelligently portrays the chief justice as an 18th Century man of The Enlightenment for whom order is divine and the law man’s most viable means of respecting it. He wants what is best for his niece and what is best for his country, and is determined to, “Let justice prevail even if the heavens come down”. In the hands of a less modest, shrewd, and skillful actor the role might have been larded with sanctimony. Instead, Wilkinson draws us into his decision-making with a thoughtful stillness, a judicious decency that gently lifts and galvanizes the entire film.
Belle (dir. Amma Asante, 2013)
by Hadley Hury