Cinema is always mining history for unusual stories, to the extent that now there doesn't seem to be many more surprises left. However, director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay have offered up a gorgeous film based on the story of a mixed-race woman named Dido raised in an aristocratic home in 18th century England, and her struggle to distinguish herself because of her colour as well as pursue change in the empire’s slavery laws. ‘Belle’ isn’t a groundbreaking piece of filmmaking, but the elements at play within it make it a slight yet special film.
Asante uses all the expected tropes of the period drama to her advantage. On the surface we haven’t strayed far from an Austen romance, but under the surface is a bubbling commentary on race and the social structures in place to work against anyone that falls out of the norm. Dido, under the care of her great uncle and aunt, is a woman placed in a position in society unusual to a person of her heritage, and as the film plays out, we watch this impressive yet torn young woman contend with a hierarchy that works against, not just her skin colour but her gender. Where other films on such subjects have relied on shock and violence to create a sense of guilt or anger, ‘Belle’ replaces the violence with intellectual ideas and discussion, slavery as an act against God and man, its function in crippling who we are. That said, we still have gorgeous costumes and sweeping romance, but for once the ideas behind it give these tropes a new freshness. This might be set hundreds of years ago, but it speaks to a conversation we are still having, about the place of women and persons of colour in our society. As Dido, Gugu Mbatha-Raw makes an impressive debut that will surely lead to an exciting career, and is backed up by an impressive ensemble that includes Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson and Penelope Wilton.
‘Belle’ falls short of establishing itself as a classic, but that shouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeking it out. It is a film of great conviction and tremendous heart, executed with skill and intelligence and unafraid to pull its punches. Its limited cinema release kept it from being seen by a large audience, but Blu-ray and DVD should help give it the attention it very much deserves.
PICTURE & SOUND
Icon have given ‘Belle’ a handsome 1080p 2.35:1 transfer, albeit a slightly soft one. Colours and detail are striking if not a tad muted, but this may be a decision of the filmmakers rather than an issue with the disc (and it isn’t much of a fault at all). The video is complemented by a well-balanced DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. This isn’t the kind of disc you want to throw at a subwoofer, but dialogue, music and sound come across beautifully.
The only extra on offer is a making-of featurette that runs barely five minutes, but goes into the inspiration for the film, a portrait depicting two young women, one black and one white. It’s stupidly short, but there’s a surprising amount of material packed into its short runtime.