Director: Amma Asante
Major Players: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson
Out Of Five: 3.5
Nobody does a costume drama quite like us Brits. We have an eye for them, a feel for them: it’s almost as if they’re in our DNA. But a shake-up never does such an established genre any harm and, in Belle, it’s taken down a whole new path in history.
Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate daughter of an 18th century Admiral, raised by her aristocratic great uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is also Lord Chief Justice. Spirited, intelligent and financially independent, she stands out for another reason. She is mixed race and, because of that, kept at arm’s length by society. As Lord Mansfield prepares to deliver judgement on a case that could lead to the end of slavery in England, Dido falls for an idealistic young lawyer who works for him – and finds her loyalties stretched and tested.
The race and slavery themes in Belle immediately set it apart from many other costume dramas, making it more contemporary and even topical, given the success earlier this year of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. But this looks at the slavery issue from a distance, through the eyes of Dido, who is our only connection with it. She’s been fortunate enough to have a privileged upbringing that affords her a certain standing in society, yet she is destined to always be on its outer edges, never fully accepted. Even in her comparatively liberal home, she has to eat in her room when guests come to dinner and is only allowed to join them later.
Dido is also illegitimate, although this seems to be less important than the colour of her skin. Her father’s acknowledgement of her as his daughter, and her resultant inheritance, mean that she has an independence her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) can never look forward to. As Elizabeth points out, a woman is expected to have a dowry and, once married, to hand over all her possessions to her husband. She, too, becomes his property – but that will never happen to Dido. It’s ironic, to say the least.
It would be far too easy – facile, even – to describe Belle as Jane Austen meets 12 Years A Slave, but it does provide a very British take on the slavery debate, as well as a reminder that England was, in its way, just as involved in slavery as the Americans. And that meant its abolition would mean taking on powerful vested interests, both here and in the colonies.
Visually, the film is beautiful, full of gorgeous costumes and settings. Even the early scenes on the dockside and less affluent areas look just a touch too appealing: grubby they most certainly are not. And the photography is full of telling details. When Belle is nervous, there’s a close up of her throat as she swallows. And, as Lord Mansfield and his wife (Emily Watson) discuss Dido’s future, they stand in front of a mirror which is used to clever effect. Not only do we see Watson herself talking to him, we also see her reflection talking to him as well.
Famously based on a true story, Belle was also inspired by a painting, one showing Dido and Elizabeth together, which now hangs in Scone Palace in Scotland. Paintings are a constant feature of the film, with the young Dido arriving at her new home and looking up at portraits of aristocrats, who all seem to be accompanied by adoring black servants. And the idea re-surfaces when Lord Mansfield commissions a painting of the two cousins, echoing the real one. Unfortunately, though, when we see the finished work, it’s terrible: Elizabeth looks fine but Dido looks dreadful. If I were Lord Mansfield, I’d be asking for my money back!
The film isn’t all about race and slavery. There’s also the love story between Dido and John Davinier (Sam Reid) the idealistic lawyer who eventually influences Lord Mansfield in his verdict in the Zong ship trial, which centred on the death of several hundred slaves in horrific circumstances. At times, the love story threatens to take over the whole film and, while the idea of Dido and John being brought together against the odds is very appealing, it also slows down the film and the final third of the film drags unnecessarily.
With a cast that includes Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and the near-national treasure, Penelope Wilton, good performances are a given. Gugu Mbatha-Raw makes a strong impression in her debut role as Dido: intense, spirited and wearing those gorgeous dresses with grace and ease. Miranda Richardson, however, as the mother of a potential suitor for Elizabeth, seems to be lining herself up to succeed Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Duchess of Cutting One-Liners.
Belle succeeds as a thinking person’s costume drama by presenting the audience with issues that still resonate and impact on today’s society. It has a huge amount going for it, not the least of which are the strong cast and beautiful photography. But a little less romance would have gone a long, long way.
Belle is released nationwide on Friday, 13 June.