Belle (Fox Searchlight)
Rated PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images.
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, Alex Jennings, James Norton, James Northcote, Bethan Mary-James.
Written by Misan Sagay.
Directed by Amma Asante.
When it comes to movies about race and racial issues, there is a line often crossed that separates historical fact from relevant contemporary social commentary. Oprah crossed that line with great ease last year in her ridiculous fantasy Lee Daniel’s The Butler, weaving a story so void of fact that its ‘based on actual events’ disclaimer seems more like a facetious joke than representing any kind of context. This isn’t always the case. 2013’s big Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave is a good example of a film that said a lot without preaching a lot or bending the facts for social convenience. I suppose that there were so many real racial atrocities in history that you really don’t need to make stuff up. Enter Belle, another period film about race that is “based” on real people and real events.
Belle is the story of Dido Belle, an 18th Century mixed-race woman whose image was captured in a famous painting (attributed to Johanne Zoffany). Dido Belle was the illegitimate daughter of a slave woman and English Navy officer. As a child, Belle is sent to live with her uncle William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), who is the 1st Earl of Mansfield and eventually becomes England’s chief court justice. Murray and his wife (Emily Watson) raise Belle along with another niece named Elizabeth, who is the same age. The girls grow up is the lap of English gentry luxury. Despite such trappings, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) enjoys reduced status over her mixed race. Belle and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) are inseparable, until they are of age to be married. Gentlemen come courting both ladies, but Belle’s race presents some difficulties for those who find her heritage abhorrent, while trying to take advantage of her family’s standing.
Further complicating things is a major court case being considered by Murray that involves a slave shipping company that apparently drowned its ‘cargo’ (diseased slaves) to avoid missing out on an insurance claim. The heart of the issue in the legal drama is whether slaves can be reduced to simple cargo – or ought to be considered human beings (what a concept).
In the middle of this congruence of societal and historic upheaval (in the 1780s), Belle is courted by Oliver (James Norton) a devious man of stature whose brother James (Tom Felton) courts Elizabeth. James happens to loathe people of color, providing a face for the villainy of 18th Century racism. At the same time, an abolitionist and son of a local vicar named John (Sam Reid) also shows romantic interest in Belle. John eventually becomes Murray’s apprentice.
As the slavery case decision grows nigh, Belle must overcome the unfair rules of British society while trying to find love – and help influence her uncle to do the right thing.
Belle is a beautiful film with a great cast and relevant things to say about slavery and society in the 1700s. Mbatha-Raw’s performance is noteworthy, while Wilkinson and Watson provide their typical brilliance. Felton’s characterization of a boorish 18th Century bigot (Draco Malfoy!) does cross over into caricature status; a cartoonish portrayal that lacks subtlety.
As for historical convenience, I did some checking, and there is a lot of fudging with the facts surrounding Dido Belle’s life in the movie, making her perhaps a little more relevant than she really was. That may not be a bad thing, but no one should leave the theater thinking she was such a big player in the abolition of slavery. Belle doesn’t make Dido’s life less meaningful, and should provide a cinematic glimpse of what one woman’s story could have been - in the middle of a slowly-evolving society.
Since obvious comparisons between Belle and 12 Years a Slave will persist, it’s important to point out that Belle is rated PG – and 12 Years got a well-deserved R. You can draw whatever conclusion you like from that, but for me, Belle’s story is more melodramatic than visceral – especially in terms of racial mistreatment. Be that as it may, Belle is perhaps a less relevant (albeit worthwhile) film.