Inspired by the true story of Dido Elisabeth Belle, Amma Asante’s British drama film Belle, is the story of a mixed-race woman, raised by an aristocratic white family in eighteenth century England. Minimally, but somewhat modernised, as any twenty-first century representation of bygone times would be, Belle does not fail to effectively relate the conflicts, concerns and societal pressures that governed England in the eighteenth century. The film reiterates its historical era by articulating the gender rules of the time, using appropriate eighteenth century language and dialogue, and frequently restating the importance of social class. But of course, the issue the film typifies, is that of colour and racial background.
Belle commences in a relatively slow-paced but steady manner, with a fairly solemn mood to it. But it crescendos, both in pace and mood, to its exhilarating and heart-warming finale. African-American Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is brought to England by her father (Matthew Goode) to live in the guardianship of her uncle, the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). Lord Mansfield shares his home with his wife (Emily Watson), sister (Penelope Winton) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon); another niece in his custody. The two young girls grow up together as sisters and are equally loved by their family. But because of her colour, Dido is consciously kept away from society, and is not permitted to dine with her family at gatherings. The issue of Dido’s colour and the controversy it creates is concretely established within the opening frames of the film and ties in with a major sub-plot; the first court case to take on the slave trade of which Lord Mansfield would be the judge. Living a frustrating life in a society that repeatedly denounces her race, Dido begins to overtly concern herself with the case. She soon finds herself fighting as a reformist against many eighteenth century rules, not only those concerned with the slave trade. By falling in love with the son of a vicar she challenges the importance of hierarchy and social class. Mbatha-Raw delivers an excellent, convincing performance, as can be said of all the actors involved in Asante’s film.
As director, Asante has created a cinematographic masterpiece which is difficult to be dissatisfied with. The opening scene of the film, before Dido is brought to her uncle’s home, is dim and dismal contrasting the consequent frame of Lord Mansfield’s colourful aristocratic mansion. The bright costumes and bright afternoon-tea spreads romanticize the film, yet never overshadow the gravity of plot. The meticulous manner in which the period is portrayed, the vivid wigs, bonnets and brooches, takes the viewer on a journey through the core of eighteenth century England. It is visually fantastic, much like plunging into a Jane Austen novel. The use of orchestral music blends in beautifully with the setting; and was, in fact, most effective because it was sparingly implemented. The poignant subject matter and its emotional portrayal, often generated sniffles and tears in the audience. Belle is a film I would unquestionably recommend, even more so to readers of Jane Austen or eighteenth-century researchers and enthusiasts.
Belle is Out Now in Limited Release.