There are few people of color, few women, and very few women of color directing films nowadays, so the fact that Amma Asante was able to make a film, with a big-name cast and a healthy budget, and that film features a woman of color as its protagonist, is to be applauded in of itself. On its own, the film is quite good–not great, for various reasons, but compelling and very well-acted–and tells an intriguing based-on-fact (though highly fictionalized) story, of a biracial woman living free and wealthy at a time when she normally would have had neither freedom nor wealth.
England, 1769: Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) is united with his young daughter, Dido Belle (Lauren Julien-Box), whose mother was an African named Belle. He takes her to the home of his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is also the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. He prevails upon Mansfield and his wife (Emily Watson) to raise Belle with the love and luxury due to her as his daughter. Despite their misgivings about Belle’s race, they agree to take her in, and the film jumps ahead some years, where Belle (now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has grown up alongside Mansfield’s other niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon).
Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) comes to Mansfield’s estate with her sons Oliver (James Norton) and James (Tom Felton) in tow, in the hopes of securing a profitable marriage between James and Elizabeth. Belle, due to social custom, dines alone, and while pacing the grounds of the estate, is startled by John Davinier (Sam Reid), a young law student and son of the local vicar, who has come to deliver a message to Mansfield regarding the case of the slave ship Zong.
Belle meets the Ashfords after dinner, where Lady Ashford and James are disgusted by her skin color, while Oliver appears to take a liking to her. Elizabeth becomes infatuated with James, not knowing of his attitude towards Belle. John seeks Mansfield’s help in becoming an established lawyer (having no means himself to achieve his education), and Mansfield takes him on as his protegé. He and Belle begin to develop a subtle bond, which Mansfield disapproves of; when John reveals to Belle the details of the Zong case (where slaves on a slave-ship were thrown overboard, ostensibly because water supplies on the ship were critically low), Mansfield expels John from his presence.
The Mansfields head to London for the judicial season, where Elizabeth will make her entry into high society. Belle has recently come into a fortune upon the death of her father, but Mansfield considers her an unlikely candidate for marriage, since her ethnicity would make her unattractive to most of the nobility, and her status as a lady means that she could only acceptably marry a nobleman. He suggests she succeed her unmarried aunt Mary (Penelope Wilton) as overseer of the family estate, a prospect which disgusts her.
In London, Elizabeth’s marriage plans with James are derailed when it is discovered that she has little wealth to her own name, making her unappealing to the money-hungry Ashfords. Belle’s wealth, however, combined with Oliver’s lesser status as a second son, make a match between them amenable to Lady Ashford, and they become engaged. But John is in London as well, working with an abolitionist organization seeking to influence the outcome of the Zong trial, and they realize they still care deeply for one another. Meanwhile, the pressure mounts on Mansfield to render a verdict in favor of the slavers in the trial (which would uphold the right of insurers to insure human beings as cargo), or to find in favor of the insurers (which would weaken the legal status of the slave trade).
As a history lesson, Belle is no more accurate than the average Hollywood biopic. John Davinier was, apparently, neither a lawyer nor an Englishman, but “a Frenchman who worked as a gentleman’s steward”; the film’s chronology is quite vague, suggesting that Belle came to England in 1769 (she was baptized in London in 1766), and that her father died before the verdict in the Zong case (he actually died about 5 years later); the film also turns Mansfield’s ruling on the Zong case into a big inspirational climax, complete with Belle watching, beaming, from the gallery.
It might be reasonably argued that this is nitpicking; Belle’s life-story is not known in great detail (her mother is even more enigmatic, and the film, perhaps wisely, does not try to fill in the blanks in regard to her), and Assante and co-writer Misan Sagay may well have been more interested in exploring the societal attitudes and emotions of Belle’s story, rather than the historical record. And in that regard, for much of the film, they do quite well. Belle’s awareness of her difficult position (at one point visualized by her pulling at her face, literally trying to rub off her color), and the cruelty that makes it so difficult (personified by Lady and James Ashford), are alike brought to sometimes-painful life.
An intriguing contrast is created between the sensitive, thoughtful Belle and Elizabeth, whose moon-eyed infatuation with James blinds her to his loathsome nature; at one point, he privately confronts Belle and manhandles her, and when Belle reveals this to Elizabeth after James has broken their engagement, she refuses to believe it–possibly a nod to the frequency with which womens’ claims of assault are ignored or outright denied, even today. Belle is not given to illusions; Elizabeth cannot escape them.
An interview with Asante (which I cannot at the moment find) notes that a contrast was also intended between the idealistic young John and the old Mansfield, who believes himself to be pragmatic, but realizes that he is just helping to maintain the status quo. The film ventures into cliché a bit here–scenes where Mansfield is reminded of his youthful idealism and his reconciliation with John (signifying his approval of his marriage to Belle) are reminiscent of a great many such scenes in other films–but since the film’s goal seems to be to use the framework of Belle’s story as a means of exploring the attendant emotions and attitudes, it is understandable.
The script is, ultimately, one of the film’s weaker elements. Misan Sagay had written the initial script and left the project for health reasons, whereupon Asante rewrote the script, and her script was used for the production, but owing to a Writer’s Guild arbitration, Sagay actually receives sole writing credit. Whether some of the film’s issues arise from a clash of visions is unclear, but it’s worth mentioning. While the low-key character scenes generally work quite well, some of the more obvious high points feel contrived, though some of this is due to Rachel Portman’s score, which is horribly overbearing at times (perhaps a mixing issue?).
Asante’s direction is better, especially in her work with the actors (which I’ll get to in a moment). As a portrait of society of the era, it’s wholly believable, and as a depiction of the tensions which exist within people–Belle’s outrage at her treatment and the treatment of slaves vs. her sense of social propriety, Mansfield’s idealism vs. his adherence to social conventions, Elizabeth’s sisterly love for Belle vs. her dream-world of romance and glamour–it’s quite effective indeed. The film’s low-key nature results in a deliberate pace, but it’s compelling throughout.
The acting is, by and large, excellent. Mbatha-Raw is not a newcomer (she was in, of all things, Larry Crowne), but this should prove to be her breakout role. While the script may make Belle just a little too perfect, Mbatha-Raw never betrays any contrivance; her performance is subtle and natural, making the ignorance and rejection Belle suffers at the hands of society all the more poignant. Mbatha-Raw is also totally believable as an 18th-century noblewoman, adding immeasurably to the film’s effect. She has roles in Jupiter Ascending this summer and Blackbird in the autumn; I look forward to seeing her in them. And will the awards groups come calling? It’s certainly not out of the question.
Sarah Gadon is a having a great year (she was excellent in Enemy), and her work here is perhaps even more effective; as upsetting as Elizabeth’s shallowness and refusal to see James’ cruelty can be, she makes Elizabeth a far more sympathetic character than she otherwise would have been, and like Mbatha-Raw, is never less than believable. Between these two films and Maps to the Stars, she’ll be a solid contender for my next film awards. While on the surface I find Sam Reid’s performance as John to be rather stiff and priggish, I think that’s exactly the way Asante meant the character to be played; John is idealistic and noble, but just a bit of a prig, and it’s his love for Belle that brings him down to earth. So on that score, he actually does pretty well.
Tom Wilkinson is always good value, and he’s great as ever as Mansfield, communicating all of the inner conflicts without laying on a heavy hand. Emily Watson has less to do as Lady Mansfield, but she holds her own. Penelope Wilton is just fine in her smaller role as the “old maid” Aunt Mary. Matthew Goode’s screentime is quite limited, but his affection for Belle is quite moving.
It’ll be a cold day in Hell before Tom Felton stops playing loathsome individuals, and James Ashford, an outright racist who at one point gropes Belle just to prove his willingness to do so, is one of the most genuinely loathsome yet. It’s not a nuanced role (though I saw the film with a friend who argued that James is really as aware of Belle’s beauty and charm as Oliver, but cannot reconcile that with his own prejudice), but Felton is about as ideal an interpreter of it as can be imagined. Lady Ashford is little better than her son, and Miranda Richardson doesn’t quite transcend the relative smallness of the role, but she’s fine. James Norton as Oliver is adequate.
The production design by Simon Bowles and (especially) the costumes by Anushia Nieradzik are impeccable. After 2013’s relative paucity of good sets and costumes, this year has so far been rich with them, and hopefully Belle gets some recognition in this department as well.
Though no masterpiece, Belle is well worth seeking out, not only for the strength of its acting but for its treatment of a subject matter Hollywood tends to overlook, in a manner Hollywood tends to eschew–telling the story of a woman of color and making her the real, true protagonist.