Film & Television

Movie Review: Romance and Racism in ‘Belle’

The year is 1779. Two young ladies, lovely cousins, are reared on their great-uncle’s grand estate. One has a sizable inheritance, one is penniless. There’s a London season, filled with would-be suitors—appropriate and not so appropriate. And misguided first impressions, which at last resolve as happily-married-ever-afters.

This sounds fairly familiar, doesn’t it? But I forgot to add two rather crucial details. First, one of the cousins is black. And, second—unlikely as it may seem, at least some of the story is true.

If Steven Spielberg had commissioned Jane Austen to write the screenplay for Amistad, Belle is pretty much what we would have gotten. It’s a sumptuous period piece reflecting on 18th-century social mores: rank, revenue, and—in this case—race. Given her fondness for alliteration, Austen might have called it Romance and Racism.

Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay settled instead on the simpler title Belle.

Belle tells the story of one Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race child living in a slum in London. Her mother was a Caribbean slave whom her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (the soulful Matthew Goode), met and loved when he captured a Spanish trading vessel. After her mother’s death, Dido’s father claims the girl and brings her to his uncle to raise while the captain is at sea. There she becomes companion to (and virtual sister of) another great-niece, Elizabeth.

The girls are raised together in an idyllic world. They are educated, accomplished, and dressed in countless satin ensembles, each more stunning than the last. Among the family there is no distinction between the white niece and the black. Dido is, in fact, more accomplished than Elizabeth. Lord Mansfield hires an artist to paint a portrait of the two girls together as equals (a stark contrast to the art of the day, in which Africans were depicted as less than wholly human). Today, the actual painting hangs at Scone Castle in Scotland.

 Dido_Elizabeth_BelleThe real Dido and Elizabeth, in a portrait painted in 1779.

When Dido and Elizabeth come of age, they realize that both are to some extent damaged goods. Dido is black; Elizabeth is white. But Dido has money and Elizabeth is poor. Both are related to a noble family and can consider only “gentlemen” suitors. This raises interesting issues: Can a sizable inheritance erase any qualms about color? There is at one point a question raised whether it’s Dido’s race or her illegitimacy that makes her “not correct.” At formal dinners, Dido must eat alone and join the company only after the meal. The Mansfields are content to have two sets of house rules where their exotic relation is concerned.

Understandably, as the girls enter the marriage market, some sisterly friction develops.

Back to our beloved Austen formula. True (and even ill-advised) love must face obstacles. The first comes in the formidable form of Lady Ashford, who makes Lady Catherine de Bourgh seem like a lovable liberal. Lady Ashford is pure evil (and Miranda Richardson seems to savor every scene). She has two eligible sons: the younger, Oliver (intrigued by Dido and in need of her money), and James, the elder and heir, unapologetically racist and attracted to Elizabeth and her supposed fortune. Poor Tom Felton—Harry Potter’s despicable Draco Malfoy—seems forever doomed to play the bad guy. In fact, James is such a stock villain from moment one spots him that we wonder how Elizabeth can be deceived. Dido is not, and her fears are confirmed in a chilling garden encounter with him. When James dumps Elizabeth, having learned that she was disinherited, Dido attempts to comfort her but is rebuked, proving that those closest to us often can hurt us most.

Of course, since Belle is a romance first and foremost, true love comes in an unexpected package. John Davinier (the smoky Sam Reid) is a lowly clergyman’s son who aspires to a life of law. He petitions Lord Mansfield to tutor him, and in true Austen fashion, Davinier’s first encounters with Dido are less than amiable wars of wit. He soon impresses her with his abolitionist passion and she begs him to explain the Zong affair—a case from which her great-uncle has shielded her but one that she senses is deeply connected to her very identity as the daughter of a former slave.

The Zong Massacre, an actual horrifying event, polarized the nation with regard to the English slave trade. The Zong was a “human cargo” ship, which claimed to have drowned 142 slaves out of necessity when lack of water threatened the lives of the white crew. In reality, the slaves were sick and would not have fetched a desirable price. They were, quite literally, worth more dead than alive. The Zong was being countersued by its insurance company, which was expected to pay £30 per lost life. So, really, the case was more about insurance fraud than about civil rights. But it was an important wedge, officially and legally drawing a distinction between slaves and other cargo. Jettisoning inanimate objects when the ship was in distress was one thing. Willfully murdering human beings was quite another.

Mansfield, as Lord Justice of the British courts, must decide the case, and the stakes are high. At the time, the economy of England relied on its dominion over the slave trade. With his unusual family ties, Mansfield’s objectivity is in question. Dido reminds him, “You break every rule when it matters enough, Papa. I am the evidence.”

Belle treads much of the same moral and historic ground as didn the aforementioned Amistad and another impressive film, Amazing Grace. But this time it’s from a woman’s perspective, and the change is welcome. The subject matter could easily make the movie preachy, but Asante balances parlor manners and prejudice, an elegant world and its ugly underbelly. This makes it immensely watchable without undermining the important history lesson within.

Belle benefits from a top-notch cast of English actors, familiar to any lover of period drama. Tom Wilkinson, always marvelous, is Lord Mansfield. Emily Watson is a steadying force as Lady Mansfield. Penelope Wilton (Mrs. Crawley in  Downton Abbey) is sour-old-maid Aunt Mary, who has become the de facto housekeeper at Kenwood House, the role that Belle dreads. And Sarah Gadon is sweet, silly, but in the end loyal sister-cousin Elizabeth.

However, the movie, as the title would suggest, is Belle’s story. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is magnetic in the role. It would be one thing if she were merely beautiful (she is, certainly), but the actress shows us how conflicted Belle is. While she has been elevated beyond any other “infamous mulatto,” she has also been robbed of her identity. Belle must deal not only with the color of her skin but also with her sex. As she explains, she has been blessed with freedom twice—when her father raised her up despite her race and when he left her with enough money that she might be and stay independent. But, as a black woman of noble birth, is her only option to live the rest of her life alone? The prospect of becoming a respectable maiden aunt is heartbreaking. Although Mbatha-Raw has been acting since she was a child, I’d seen her before only in a supporting role in Larry Crowne. She is a remarkable actress and one whose talents I hope to see grace many future films.

These days, so many (too many) movies begin with a title card proudly announcing that the film is “Based on a true story.” It’s as if some level of reality elevates the experience, making you feel better about paying $11 for your ticket (and $7 more for popcorn). Often the ties to any truth are loose at best. In this case, Asante was inspired to tell the story of Dido when she saw the painting in Scone Castle. As a young girl, Asante loved period romances but, as a child of color, never saw herself in them. She hopes that with Belle she is providing to a new generation of girls the personal connection that she missed.

The real Dido did grow up in Lord Mansfield’s house, alongside her cousin Elizabeth. Lord Mansfield did pass judgments that were eventually instrumental in bringing down the slave trade. Was he influence by his love and respect for his ward? Possibly. Probably. We can’t know.

But it makes a most wonderful movie.

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