The name, Belle brings to mind a beautiful, English rose. But Dido Elizabeth Belle, the real-life woman and beauty at the heart of Amma Asante’s second feature is a little more complicated than that. The illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral is sent to live with her distant, aristocratic family at their estate, Kenwood House, after her father is sent away and her mother dies. What ensues is a compelling tale where gender, race, politics, class, ethics and other social conflicts collide.
The year is 1769 and England still employs slaves. It is also the same year that Belle’s adopted father, the First Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson) presides over a landmark, legal case. The Zong massacre was the subject and it saw some 142 slaves die while they were in passage. Some were diseased and would not fetch the appropriate price if they made it to their final destination. Many individuals subsequently drowned and an insurance claim was made for these “lost goods”. It was Murray who had to decide whether this act was a deliberate case of fraud and whether you could put a price on human life.
Belle herself was also forced to grapple with some difficult issues and she is ably played here by the strong, dignified and thoughtful, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Her real father (Matthew Goode) changed her circumstances in life when he bestowed her upon his wealthy uncle and asked the latter to become her guardian. But she was also forced into a world where she was educated and for all intents and purposes treated like a lady, but her race precluded her from reaping the same benefits as her white cousin and pseudo-sister, Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon).
This slow-burning film really hits its stride when it steers away from Cinderella clichés and stops giving airtime to characters that bear a striking resemblance to some of Jane Austen’s sillier creations (i.e. the ones obsessed with marriage, wealth and little else). Thanks to a stellar cast (which also includes Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson and Sam Reid), Belle manages to get to the heart of the story’s raw and pure emotion and ask the bigger questions. These include Belle’s own enquiries about how a local clergyman can be welcomed to dine at a table where she is not allowed (as she is considered too important to sit with the slaves but not good enough to sit with her own family whenever company is around). There is also the question of whether the heiress, Belle will ever be able to marry a man who is as wealthy as herself.
The story is actually inspired by the 1779 portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. There are few concrete facts known about these two women, which meant that the film’s writer, Misan Sagay was able to cast her own ideas and pure fiction into a broader, historic context for the script. For the most part this works well and it proves an inspirational tale as the oppressed lead character overcomes various impediments before eventually discovering her true place in society. It’s not an easy journey but there are times where it does reach a tense climax. Plus, the film’s biggest strengths are when it gets the opportunity to showcase sumptuous production values, lavish costumes and an all-round glorious design.
Belle is ultimately an emotionally-charged, layered and extraordinary period drama about one strong woman and her family. It manages to retain a beautiful feel and sentimentality, even while dealing with the darker horrors and conflicts of the day. The defiant lead characters prove equally entertaining and inspiring; the secondary love story will make audiences want to cry; and it will ultimately leave people with lots to talk and think about.
Review score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Belle opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday, May 8th.