UK Release Date: June 13th, 2014
Running Time: 104 mins.
Director: Amma Asante
Writer: Misan Sagay (Screenplay),
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Emily Watson, Matthew Goode, Tom Felton, James Norton, Miranda Richardson,
Amma Asante’s Belle has the hallmarks of a costume drama thanks to the setting of Georgian England and its focus on relationships but due to the titular character it is different from other films of the genre. The inspiration for the film comes from a beautiful and lively painting (attributed to Johann Zoffany) of a mixed-race girl and a white girl, both recently revealed to be half-cousins, both given flattering portrait treatment and both depicted as equals. What makes it strange is that this was painted at a time when Britain was a colonial empire and a centre of the slave trade and both people have equal prominence. The mixed-race girl in the picture is Belle. At a time when the voice of slavers was a loud one in the British Empire because the country derived a massive amount of income from the slave trade, Belle lived the life of an aristocrat and would find herself connected to a court case which would decide the fate of the British slave trade. Assante takes this as a starting point to craft a costume drama with a civil-rights edge that tackles race and gender.
We are in 18th Century England, Kenwood House to be precise. It is like many a stately home seen in many costume dramas, a place where the walls are adorned with lavish oil paintings of men in full battle regalia and women in beautiful dresses, candelabras glimmer in the bright light of richly furnished rooms with tall windows that gaze out onto landscaped gardens. This is the place of aristocrats and the servants who attend them but there’s one thing that makes this place different, one aristocrat who stands out from the rest.
Her name is Dido Elizabeth Belle (Mbatha-Raw) and she is a young mixed-race woman. She is the illegitimate daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay (Goode), a captain in the Royal Navy, and a Caribbean slave. Years earlier, after the death of her mother, Lindsay, in an act that could only come from love, has done the unthinkable and rescued her and recognised her as the heir to his name and fortune. “What is right can never be impossible.”
With this in mind, he sends her to live with his uncle Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson) and his wife (Watson) at Kenwood House, securing her from a life of slavery after he persuades them to make her a ward and grants her an annuity.
Lord Mansfield is the most powerful judge in Britain overseeing the Court of the King’s Bench, and is at a critical juncture in his career as he presides over the Zong case which involved an insurance claim from a slave ship which threw its entire cargo of slaves overboard when water apparently ran low. His ruling will have massive implications for Britain and the nation is on edge as it awaits his verdict and Belle finds herself at the centre of everything.
The law is to be interpreted not merely administered
Mixed-race leading characters are very, very thin on the ground but thanks to the real life figure of Dido Elizabeth Belle one more can be added to the movie world. Despite being such a striking figure in the painting sources on Dido Elizabeth Belle are not exactly overflowing and so Amma Assante and writer Misan Sagay have taken the known facts of Belle’s life and background and mixed it with a costume drama romance that did not quite happen the way it is sold in the film. This allows them to turn the costume drama genre on its head as they turn Belle into a proto-feminist and campaigner for human rights, criticising various genre tropes and historical realities in one go.
Belle, as a mixed-race female, finds herself subjected to the racial and gender mores of the time and the story ably exposes the harsh realities by showing Belle’s gradual awakening to the inequalities of society as she ventures beyond the safety of society in Kenwood House. She is regarded with fondness perhaps love, by her adoptive family and she is free to order the servants around. In a sign of the wider issues of her colour and societal status she finds herself too good to eat with the servants and when guests arrive for formal dinner, she must make herself scarce and can only show her face after formalities are over. Those same guests regard her with a mixture of racism and curiosity when they do see her. The older she gets, the more she recognises how unfair it is and these moments shock her.
Her insecurities about her race are ones that she has lived with but has been able to ignore due to living in the bubble of Kenwood House with the protection of Lord Mansfield. Now, facing the choice of pursuing a good match or romance like most female protagonists (and women of the age), or growing into a spinster she finds herself venturing further into the society of adults, men, and the law and begins to discover more about the slave trade and the mistreatment of blacks. The film portrays her gradual awakening to her “blackness” influencing Lord Mansfield’s work with the Zong trial and something of the slave abolitionist awakens in Belle.
Belle’s position as a female is also a most vexatious issue to her as she and her cousin Elizabeth find themselves on the marriage market and their freedoms limited. They soon start to make comparisons between slavery. By having Belle as a protagonist and surrounding her with strong female relationships with her cousin and their great aunts’, the film allows comment to be made through their relationships with men and the constant discussion of marriage. Ceaseless marriage negotiations and talk of dowries hammer home the position of women as little more than commodities for men mixed and an analogy between marriage and slavery seems to be made when such conversations are couched between the business talk of insurance value of the slaves.
Assante pulls no punches in showing the racism and sexism and even the pitfalls of class that the characters navigate. She does it through introducing some villainous suitors who are racist and violent, upsetting the normally chaste costume drama formula with two short but vile scenes of physical threat and the toying of emotions. Behind the gentlemanly façade of the suitors lies the avaricious, misogynistic and racially prejudiced realities of the time. Basic stuff but it lays bare the unfairness of gender and race relations of the time. Thankfully Belle is a strong protagonist who overcomes her problems and the film, following genre convention, also allows another male character to become a romantic object only he actually notices the worth of her character rather than the annuity or property that may be gained. He happens to come in the form of the rather handsome, honest, and passionate Sam Reid.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw does sterling work as a mixed-race girl confronting the issues of race and gender. She is strikingly beautiful and brings a great sense of pluckiness to the role, starting off innocent and gradual awakening to the world’s inequalities. Unlike the society that surrounds her she does not judge people on appearances and while she does look at a person’s reputation, as a woman of the day would, she comes to see that what is most valuable is a person’s character through the tribulations she face on the marriage market and this forms a natural romantic plot that allows the costume drama conventions to work. It is also with these qualities that she captures the hearts of those closest to her and influences Lord Mansfield’s actions.
She is not alone in providing a great performance because there are a great cast of characters like Tom Wilkinson who brings gravitas and the steely sense of justice as a judge who will make history. His rich voice and stern manner convinces one of the moral uprightness of the man. More than that, he shows the heart and affection a man in his position can have and his relationship with Belle is a beautiful one that borders on father and daughter as the two enrich each others lies.
For those who think that history is made by great men making tough decisions, this is a reminder that the solution to histories problems come from within us and those who care for us.
I do not want to see her diminished
Belle’s situation is one that could only have happened in Britain, a place where class trumps everything, even race, where interracial marriage was not completely uncommon and colonial adventurers brought back children fathered in foreign lands. Much of this history has been whitewashed or ignored by costume dramas making this film one of the strongest assertions of the growing racial complexity of the west at the time.
Due to the lack of source material outside of housekeeping accounts and letters from people who visited Kenwood house, the true story of Belle may end up never being fully told. What she, as a mixed-race person, really thought about the slave trade and white/black people, her position in life and a society that was heavily codified and looked down upon people for so many reasons may never be known but her mere and unique existence has opened up a world of possibilities that the writer and director explored. What evidence there is reveals a woman who did live the life of an aristocrat, who was regarded as talented and took up responsible duties at Kenwood House and became Lord Mansfield’s secretary and close friend, and eventually married, had children and lived a comfortable life in a house in Pimlico, seemingly retaining a degree of freedom that many at the time didn’t have. As much as I would like to hear a mixed-race voice, I think I like the movie version which intelligently dissects a genre and so many complex issues and, most importantly, makes her a pivotal figure in world history. A true hero.