Belle (Amma Asante, 2013)
‘Based on a true story’, Belle is inspired by a 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Reportedly, little is known about Dido’s life and thus the script may take some liberties in its telling of her story.
Dido was the illegitimate mixed-race child of an enslaved African woman and Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). In the opening scenes of the film she is placed in the care of her uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). Though she is of high rank, she deals with the racism that is rife in aristocratic society. Meanwhile, her uncle as Lord Chief Justice is presiding over a case that is to become instrumental in working towards the abolition of slavery. As the story goes, she may have had some small part to play here, but then again it may be the artistic license.
Despite the obvious themes regarding race, Belle is never as dramatic as one might expect. The glaring bigotry of certain aristocrats is on display, and a light is shone on the hideosities of the treatment of slaves, particularly with reference to the court case regarding the Zong massacre in 1781, in which slaves were deliberately drowned so that slave-traders could claim their life insurance. This is heavy stuff but the film doesn’t quite succeed in demonstrating the gravitas of such events, rather preferring to focus on shallow marriage arrangements which are trivial in comparison to the broader issues alluded to. Belle is certainly no 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013), which is brutal in its depiction to the point of being difficult to watch (still that film is amazing so see it). Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable frolic in the gardens with sufficient pouting to accompany it, and really just quite NICE while still addressing some deeper issues. I have to wonder whether that might have been deliberate considering how many people refused to see 12 Years a Slave because they couldn’t handle feeling uncomfortable. Here you are faced with mild undertones of slavery without having to actually bear witness to any of it.
As a film, Belle was certainly nice to look at. Oh. My. God. THE COSTUMES! I absolutely delighted in every change of scene which came with new exquisite dresses for both Dido and Elizabeth (as well as their mothers and aunts to a slightly lesser degree – hot young things get the best outfits). The colours! The detail! How I almost wish we could still get away with such extravagance in today’s society. Although the idea of wearing a corset all day every day is pretty heinous. But the added cleavage would almost counter the pain. The sets and the score heightened the overall absolute beauty of the film and made its title even more apt.
A pretty respectable cast has been assembled in Belle. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (I hope it’s pronounced ‘goo-goo’ because that’s awesome) came close to putting me off with her incessant pouting, but I’d probably pout that much too if I looked so good doing it. Lauren Julien-Box played the young Dido and was absolute perfection, to the point where I was disappointed when the adult Dido appeared so early on in the film. Nevertheless, Gugu and Sarah Gadon were a pleasure to watch as the two cousins, flanked by a cast of familiar British faces including Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, Miranda Richardson and Matthew Goode. Sam Reid played the awkward-but-hot-but-is-he role of Dido’s love interest, John Davinier, with Tom Felton and James Norton as a couple of arsehole brothers who try to court Elizabeth and Dido respectively. No surprises that Tom Felton is pretty much playing Draco Malfoy again here – is he ever not an arsehole?
For someone who almost had a fit every time I was forced to endure Pride and Prejudice in high school, it wasn’t bad for an aristocratic period piece. And no matter how much she pouted throughout, Gugu was never as excruciatingly annoying as Jennifer Ehle and her self-righteous “I’m so witty!” smirk. Yuk. Elizabeth Bennett is way overrated. But I digress… Belle was a bit twee and the ending massively pandered to the female viewers who swoon over big stupid declarations of love and marriage proposals that are based on only a few encounters. But, such was life back then if all the stories are to be believed. No matter, Belle was très belle.