“How can I be too high in rank to dine with the servants but too low to dine with my own family?”
As Avenue Q once counselled us, “you should be…careful when you’re talking about the sensitive subject of race “ and Amma Asante’s 2014 film Belle does exactly that, treading delicately but definitively in telling this real-life story of a mixed race woman who found herself at the heart of English society in the late 1700s. Inspired by a painting of this woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle, and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray that hung in Kenwood House, scriptwriter Misan Sagay (and Asante herself too, as reports would suggest) have fashioned a most elegant biography which has a little more bite than your usual period drama due to the inclusion of the slave trade as a significant sub-plot.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is excellent as Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved African woman and a British navy captain, who is placed into the care of his uncle Lord Mansfield as a ward. He and his wife already care for another niece and so the two become as if sisters, scarcely aware of Belle’s unique position. For though she is ostensibly a part of society, and upon her father’s death a woman of independent means, she is not permitted to contravene society’s rules – so she may not dine with her family and their guests for propriety’s sake, but she may join them after dinner. And she and Bette start to attract the interest of notable suitors, she becomes increasingly aware of the problems in the world she has been placed in.
A measure of artistic license has been used to place Belle at the heart of a key case that her great-uncle, the Lord Chief Justice of the time, was presiding over and which ultimately spearheaded the movement to abolish slavery. But though the direct evidence may not exist of her involvement, the fictional version here is entirely believable as she slowly emerges from the carefully constructed cocoon in which she has existed to find the how the slave trade works in all its brutality and the snide racism with which so many treat her. Raw sketches Belle’s journey of self-actualisation beautifully, unafraid to show a woman asserting her own needs, even if it means trampling over others.
So James Norton’s well-meaning but misguided Oliver is eventually supplanted by Sam Reid’s lowly but principled lawyer, the ever-excellent Miranda Richardson as his haughty mother is pleasingly put in her place, and Sarah Gadon’s Bette is empowered to find love through Belle’s own benevolence. The dialogue lacks the comic bite of someone like Austen to really make the society scenes crackle as one might expect – Emily Watson’s aunt feels poorly written in this respect and Penelope Wilton’s dowager aunt only just emerges unscathed through the strength of her performance. But Tom Wilkinson’s Mansfield is all avuncular warmth and worldliness as he steadily but surely searches for the right path.
It is beautifully shot by Asante with Ben Smithard’s cinematography making the most of the English locations and Rachel Portman’s evocative score adding nice texture. The only minor criticism I had – and this just goes to show you can never win – is that it’s a very upper class-focused story – Belle’s awakening is entirely about her race rather than a wider social awareness – she’s all too happy to have a black servant and the working classes are nowhere to be seen. But that aside, it really is a rather lovely film.