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Film Review: Belle

Written by Leslie Byron Pitt



belle poster portrait

Released after the trail blazed by the searing 12 Years a Slave (2013), Belle is a film that owes more to the likes of Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Lincoln (2012) than Steve McQueen’s slave drama. Inspired by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the film tackles Dido’s societal standing within her family as an illegitimate mixed-race woman in the age of British slavery. Her relationship with an idealistic vicar’s lawyer son (Sam Reid), helps shape the views of her uncle (Tom Wilkinson), whose role of Lord Chief Justice may bring around the end of slavery in England.

Despite seeming at first worlds away from Amma Asante’s 2004 debut, A Way of Life, Belle delves into the idea of race as a restrictive societal construct. The film often lands Dido as a woman permanently stuck between two worlds, with her education and standing consistently at odds with her mixed-race heritage, and some (including a particularly insidious role by Tom Felton) not valuing any of her attributes at all.

Once again, Asante appears quite deft at showing women who are enclosed by suffocating circumstance and a society who cannot see past anything but the superficial. Scenes in which we notice Dido not being allowed to sit at the table when the family host dinner guests are played off against moments in which she display those talents she clearly holds. Much of the film’s strength stems from the fact that despite being a daughter of a slave, she excels within the opportunities that are given to her by her father’s higher class.

Dido’s home life runs parallel to her uncle’s role in the 1781 Zong Massacre, an actual event in which an African crew of 142 slaves were killed in a claim for insurance. The film balances the narrative’s issues well, with Asante confidently illustrating how the 1783 trial influences Dido and her sense of identity, and how she then in turn influences the trial.

095_Belle_ScreenGrab_039.JPGAn early American review stated that the film seemed too hesitant with the racism of the times, a statement that suggest that when it comes to such prejudice, we must only speak in obvious and belligerent tongues. As a fictional account of real-life event, Asante manages to inform viewers of the type of racism that we still witness now, with the lives of black people measured only in the value they can bring to white economics. The boat of slaves is looked at dispassionately as cargo, yet Dido’s very being, subtly counter-argues the situation from behind the scenes. The film may trail in the shadow of 12 Years a Slave but it deals with a similar message without the need of overt slurs, which is something that is often overlooked when considering conversations of race.

It is areas like this in which Belle as a film excels, evidence of Asante maturing greatly from when she first appeared on the directorial scene ten years ago. Her use of music is much more appropriate for each scene; a family sequence – involving who is asking for Dido’s and her cousin Elizabeth’s (Sarah Gadon) hand – is confidently edited in a way that shows just how assured Asante has become. The film perhaps unknowingly mirrors aspects of the director’s career in terms of visibility, however; the lengthy period of time between her critically-successful debut and Belle poses the question often asked about women and ethnic minorities working behind the camera. Belle shows both on- and off-screen that the talent is there if the opportunity is given, with Asante’s (uncredited) writing and direction giving the film a warmth that one rarely finds in similar period pieces that hold a too stuffy and mannered poise about themselves.

While the film may not hold the same amount of production costs as the likes of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, the film is confidently captured in its cinematography and costume design. The film also holds a solid cast with the likes of Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson providing sturdy support for the doe-eyed yet dauntless lead performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw whose chemistry with both Sarah Gadon and Reid, is naturalistic and affectionate. The success of Belle is that, like Pride and Prejudice, it is a film that confidently places intelligent women (both on and off screen) in the forefront. However Belle holds more to it than its romance. A character suggests that “Love is a complicated thing”. So is race relations, and Belle handles both well.

Leslie Byron Pitt


Belle is released in cinemas on June 13th
Watch the trailer here