I’ve long found myself bored by period costume dramas of the Jane Austen-type. It’s extremely difficult to care about extremely rich aristocrats in England and their romantic troubles, and the stuffy, polite, obfuscating dialogue that forms a major part of such films often sounds dead, an empty exercise for not-untalented actors to practice their Received Pronunciation skills. In short, the entire genre often seems to exist because the BBC needs to justify their costumes department budget and because Julian Fellowes needs a steady source of aristocrats to remind commoners how much better the old days were when cuddly benign rich people could help out illiterate peasants at their own leisure, with none of this state-sanctioned “welfare” hokey-pokey.
So it was quite a surprise for me when I found Belle to be wholly engaging. This is largely because director Amma Asante has told a story which is actually relevant to the modern day, unlike the majority of the genre. The factual basis of the film is rooted on Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was born into slavery in the 18th century by a black mother and a British naval officer father. After the death of her mother, she was taken to her uncle, the 1st Earl of Mansfield (who as Lord Justice in British courts would rule on two cases crucial to ending the slave trade), and entrusted into his care. She grew up therefore as a mixed-race noblewoman, possibly the only occasion of this happening in colonial-era Britain. Belle focuses on her eligibility for marriage and her role in society, with the court cases providing background context.
Asante, herself a woman of colour, pays special attention to Dido’s self-realisation of her place in society. Growing up in a privileged country home, she is shielded from the uglier realities of her racial background by the protective care of her surrogate family, despite questioning why, for example, she is not allowed to sit at the dinner table with the rest of the family when guests are around. Her father dies, leaving her with an impressive inheritance and without the need to marry a man of substantial wealth (noblewomen were not allowed to work, so a well-chosen marriage was crucial to sustaining a livelihood).
This burst of financial independence coincides, or rather fuels, her coming to terms with the fact of her race and outsider place in the upper classes of the English landed gentry, both as a person of colour and as a woman: her anxieties about her place in society are symbolised by her worries over having her portrait painted alongside her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), with Dido aware of most painters habitually portraying black figures as servants or lower-orders in their work. The real-life painting does indeed show Dido and Elizabeth as equals, both given equal prominence in the frame.
Hovering in the background of all this is the fact that in some respects, not all that much has changed since Dido’s time. Slavery may be long-gone, but institutional inequality is still heavily entrenched, and the upper echelons of our TV and cinema are still dominated by white British men despite the increasingly multiethnic nature of British society. There’s nothing inherently wrong of course with telling stories about white straight males, the problem is when all the stories are about white straight males, and any corrective to that is often a welcome antidote, as this film is.
Belle achieves what so few historical dramas do by having something valuable to say about the modern world, and it does so by filtering it through history, taking the past and moulding it to see what it can tell us about today. Even the mildest bit of research about the film will tell you plenty about historical inaccuracies depicted that pedants would pontificate over, but Assante is not interested in pure fact. The central drive of the film remains true, and Assante shifts the elements of the story around to reinforce the film’s thematic focus on the intersection between class, race, and gender: too much focus on historical exactness often suffocates the life out of such films.
There are flaws in Belle’s construction however, mostly of the kind often found in costume drama films. The film is perhaps overly polite and pleasant aesthetically. The costumes are nice to look at and the film is handsomely shot, but Amma Asante is not a particularly imaginative visual director; most scenes don’t develop beyond the standard visual grammar of establishing-shot-mid-shot-close-up-two-people-talking rhythm, relying instead on the uniqueness of her source material to hold the audience’s interest.
Additionally, there is more than a little schmaltz added to the film, in which characters give moving motivational speeches about how slavery is bad and love is good (you don’t say?). The performances in the film are wholly excellent; especially Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s nuanced and intelligent performance in the leading role, so the speechifying is at least often well-delivered, but it does render entire scenes redundant, with Belle being at its best when it’s dissecting Dido’s identity and self-realisation in more subtler, nuanced ways. It’s still a highly entertaining and interesting film, a solid work to seek out for anyone interested in films about identity, history, and inequality.