Belle (Amma Asante, 2013)
If you are partial to the novels of Jane Austen, chances are you will enjoy Belle, a new film set in the late 18th century, directed by actress-turned-director Amma Assante and written by doctor-turned-screenwriter Misan Sagay. It is Ms. Sagay (or, I should write, Dr. Sagay) who, years ago, while studying medicine in Scotland, found herself looking at a painting of two young women of the Georgian era – one white, one black, and apparently on relatively equal footing – and was intrigued enough to eventually research the painting’s subjects and write the script that became Belle. Little is known of the actual lives of Dido Elizabeth Belle (the woman of color) and Elizabeth Murray (the white woman), but from what scant details are in the public record Misan Sagay has fashioned a compelling and uplifting story of the challenges and opportunities of race, gender and class in a white male aristocratic world. In spite of the excessive formalism and unnecessary exposition of some of the scenes, the film is a rousing narrative success, filled with great performances and beautiful cinematography. Think Persuasion meets Mansfield Park, with a little bit of Emma thrown in, add a dash of 21st-century sensibilities, and you’ll get the idea. It works, it’s fun, and I highly recommend.
The story begins with Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), who fathered a daughter – Dido Elizabeth – with an African slave woman he rescued from a Spanish ship, taking that daughter from the slums where she’s been living with her mother – now deceased – to the grand estate owned by his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson, excellent as always), who just happens to be the Lord Chief Justice of England. Neither Lord Mansfield nor his wife, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson, also excellent, also as always), is particularly happy with the addition to their household. Not only is Dido black (something the good nephew failed to mention before his arrival), but they are already raising the child of another nephew, Sir David Murray, a widower who has remarried and apparently wants nothing to do with his daughter. Still, they are decent people, and as Sir Lindsay now legally claims Dido as his descendent and heir, and as young Elizabeth Murray needs a playmate, they acquiesce, allowing the sea captain to depart on his imminent voyage with his mind and heart at ease. And so Dido begins a new life – one of great splendor – and is raised as an equal in the family . . .
. . . not so fast. The Mansfields may be portrayed here as progressive folk, but they are still of their time. Though Dido and her cousin play together, study together, eat together and sleep in the same room together – they are, effectively, sisters – Dido is not allowed to eat at the dinner table whenever there are guests (though she is allowed to greet those guests afterwards in the drawing room). Since the Mansfields otherwise treat her with love, she grows into a confident and bright young woman, but one who nevertheless is primed to question the system that keeps her constantly feeling like an outsider. We’re still in the 1770s and ’80s, remember, and slavery was not abolished in England until 1833. And so Sagay and Asante (both British women of color) use Dido’s story – that of a singular young woman finding her place in the world – as a metaphor for a nation’s moral awakening. Since this is a movie clearly modeled on the Austenian code, we know that Dido’s road to self-actualization and romantic happiness will be rocky, but that she will triumph. In this case, so will England. For Sagay’s script posits that it was Dido’s presence in the Mansfield house that led Lord Mansfield – who, as a matter of the historical record, issued rulings in a number of cases that paved the way to abolition – to alter his views on slavery. Whether this is true or not is impossible to know, but it makes for a great story.
What helps make the film work so well is the great depth in the casting, starting with the lead. Gugu Mbatha-Raw may not be well known in the States, but she has been acting since she was a child in her native U.K., and carries the weight of the entire movie on her slender, but very strong, shoulders. She would be the perfect Miss Elizabeth Bennet. She is assisted, with aplomb, by fine supporting performances from Wilkinson and Watson, as well as from Sarah Gadon, who plays her cousin, and Sam Reid, who plays her love interest, to name just some of the steady work from the rest of the cast.
In a world where summer blockbusters are about to start exploding right and left, treat yourself to a preemptive and lovely respite from the fiery mess ahead, and go see Belle.