Director: Amma Asante
Plot: After her enslaved mother dies, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Mbatha-Raw) is taken by her father (Goode) to live with her aristocratic great uncle, the Lord Chief Justice (Wilkinson).
Review: Amma Asante’s second directorial film tells the story of the illegitimate child of Royal Navy captain, John Lindsay, and an African woman named Maria Belle. The child named Dido Elizabeth Belle was brought up at Kenwood House by her great uncle Lord Mansfield. Lord Mansfield’s position as lord chief justice saw him encounter many significant slavery cases, most notably the ‘Zong’ ship case where the crew drowned their human ‘cargo’ to claim money from their insurers; this case forms the backdrop to the narrative of Belle much like that in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. This costume drama plays upon the heartstrings as the romantic melodrama plays out whilst keeping viewers hooked with the social history element of the film.
Belle is held together by impressive performances from both, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tom Wilkinson who shine whenever on screen. These performances make Belle a fascinating watch, aside from other lackluster performances and problems with the script. While in parts, the cast struggle with their formal, wooden dialogue, which causes scenes to stutter rather than flow through important conversations. However, Mbatha-Raw portrays the classic women out of time role with elegance; she really is the star turn of this feature. Likewise, Tom Felton seems to have strolled straight from being Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films to his role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and then onto Belle, with his familiar and somewhat tiresome, nasty spoilt-brat routine that he brings to every role.
Amma Asante handles the subject matter well enough to make an engaging period piece about an important historical event, but, sadly, this isn’t enough in this age of film. Recent films, such as Lee Daniel’s The Butler, and, especially, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, have set a certain benchmark within the genre – they are much more impressive and affecting looks at the subject of slavery. I can’t help but think that Belle could have been so much more in more accomplished hands. That been said, Belle is a strong enough film to hold mainstream audiences who may shy away from the more distressing films previously mentioned.
Despite its shortcomings, Belle manages to convey the story of a woman who struggles to define herself in her environment. The main ambivalence exists in the ultimate dichotomy of her life: the importance of her ‘privileged’ blood or the colour of her skin, the value of each seems to change throughout the film. This is most evident when Dido is seen to be to0 high in rank to dine with the slaves but not high enough in rank to dine with her family when receiving guests. Dido must struggle to find her own identity in a society confused between the importance of family and race. While this is all relevant and problematic inside Kenwood House, Dido’s situation complicates tenfold with the prospect of marriage. The complexity of emotions Dido had to manage is elicited through her struggle in a world where true human feeling is valued less than the superficialities of social status.
The films soundtrack composed by Rachel Portman fits the whole feel of the film: charming, romantic and upbeat with a darker and dramatic resonance towards the end of the film.
Belle manages to portray an important story well enough to capture an audience not accustomed to the hard-hitting drama 12 Years a Slave managed to bring to the screen. This is, for the most part, however, a well-acted period piece with just enough sentiment that might play best to an older crowd.