Filmmakers seem to be turning their eyes again towards that horrific period of history where we deemed it necessary to keep people of colour as slaves. Such practices had existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, but in the wake of the Age of Reason and as mistreatment of slaves reached a breaking point, countries around the world realised that the fact they had always had slaves didn’t mean it was right. Earlier this year we saw the experience in the United States with Steve McQueen’s acclaimed ’12 Years A Slave’, but with her new film, director Amma Asante has turned our focus to Britain and the pivotal moment when slavery began to crumble. However, rather than looking at the story from the perspective of a slave, Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay have chosen a far more unusual story from the history books.
In 1779, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is living with her great uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), his wife (Emily Watson) and their daughter Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Left in their care by her father before he died in battle, the Mansfield’s have accepted Dido as a member of their family. The complication is that Dido is of mixed-race heritage, her mother being a slave whom her father fell in love with. In an effort to protect her, Lord Mansfield imposes safety precautions on Dido, already seen as a freak by the rest of the British aristocracy, while also presiding as Lord Chief Justice over a case that will deliver the first blow against slavery in Britain. As she comes of age, Dido begins to navigate the tricky complications of being a member of society while coming to terms with her heritage, with the help of young lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid), who champions for the abolition of slavery.
‘Belle’ is a film with many balls in the air, and it's a credit to Asante that not a single one falls with a thud. The result is a delicate and stirring period drama with some very pertinent comments to make that extend further than its historical setting. Dido’s story has as much to say about the role of women in a society as it does about people of colour, and in many ways the strength of these themes relegates the slavery narrative into the background. The tricky thing about handling such a subject is that it can be little more than a few hours of exposure to horrible acts of the past, but what ‘Belle’ does so well is ask us questions that relate to the world we exist in now. How do we treat people of other races in our own society? How is the ladder of social hierarchy constructed? Where do we really think women fit in this world? This is period and historical filmmaking at its best: not just presenting the past as an interesting artefact, but a lesson we can learn from. At times, Sagay’s screenplay does get caught up in its need to deliver ideas and exposition at the sacrifice of character, but Asante’s exact direction and the great performances from the cast are able to sell those moments. The rhythm of the film is a little languid, but when it hits its stride, it delivers the emotional punches it needs, allowing this to not only be a film of ideas but one of passion and romance. It looks absolutely gorgeous, and the score is a real treat, but it never loses sight of the fact that as a film, it has something to say and a clear purpose.
This is period and historical filmmaking at its best.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw excels as Dido, delivering a beautiful and driven performance. This film would never have worked if Dido didn’t possess a powerful drive, and Mbatha-Raw gives so much of herself to this. It isn’t as overwhelming a turn as Lupita Nyong’o in ‘Slave’, but it still has all the hallmarks of a star-making performance. She also has potent chemistry with her co-stars, especially Reid as her love interest and Gadon as Elizabeth. Reid struggles a bit on occasions, but he is full of conviction and plays everything for truth, and Gadon is a refreshingly bubbly companion for Dido. Tom Wilkinson is as brilliant as you would expect, and leads the respected members of the cast, including Watson, Miranda Richardson and Penelope Wilton, all of whom are excellent. Every performer really cares about the film they are making and the conceit of it, and this lifts the film even further.
Towards the end of the film Dido comments that she has fought for her freedom twice, first her freedom as a person of colour and second as a woman, and this is the heart of ‘Belle’. At no time does it hammer you with this point, instead allowing you to come to it through the touching story of a remarkable young woman in a time where she should have been anything but. ‘Belle’ is a gorgeous period drama with a tremendous heart, weeping romance and terrific performances, and presents history as it should be presented, as a lesson for us to learn from now and to better the world we are living in.