First off, thank you to all my fellow film-lovers who brought this movie to my attention. It seems to have slipped under the radar over here but I’m infinitely glad I had the chance to watch it.
Belle recounts the true story (in broad strokes – little is known of her life) of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the half-black, bastard child of a Royal Navy Captain in 18th century (slave-trading) England. Her father loves her deeply (as he did her deceased mother) and when he ships out to India, he appeals to his uncle to care for her in his absence. A Lord and Chief Justice, the uncle tries to raise her, along with another (white) niece, with the privileges she is due while teaching her the important barriers of her skin colour. “Too high in rank to dine with the servants, too low in rank” to dine with her family. She has enough to feel a sense of belonging, and just enough to feel left out. At court, her uncle must decide an important case about slaves as he resists acknowledging their similarity to his beloved niece.
I just watched Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond The Lights and thought she was a stand-out, but this film makes clear that her career will be one to be reckoned with. She’s very subtle and deliberate and saves Belle from being merely a curiosity. Instead she is painted as a woman conflicted, a woman carrying the weight of her race for everyone to see. And this movie is also about class, and (perhaps even foremost) about gender. It would seem that her skin colour can be compensated for with enough money, but her gender leaves her with few options. She must either find a good husband or be invisible like her aunt (Penelope Wilton, tragic and invisible). In the film, Belle’s uncle (Tom Wilkinson, formidable) is challenged to draw a parallel between his niece (who is constantly referred to by the ugly word “mulatto”), and slaves insured as human cargo. Are they not worth the same? Is she not worth the same as any other debutante? The film asks the same question of us but poses it too lightly. I can only imagine the controversy her presence in the family home must have caused, and yet I must imagine it because the script glosses right over the indecencies that certainly occurred. The story focuses on romance, or lack thereof, as befits their station and the time, and covers social implications inadequately. Belle lacks the self-starting spark that would make her the pioneer the script so badly wants her to be.
The script has been controversially attributed to Misan Sagay, despite director Amma Asante
having written 18 drafts over 3 long years. Sagay is an American member of the writer’s guild and took it to her union, which decided in her favour against non-member Asante (who is based in Great Britain). Wilkinson and Wilton have expressed ‘incredulity’ at the decision, because they had “only seen and worked from a script written by Amma”, With or without accreditation, this is an imperfect but impressive first full-length feature and Asante is sure to give voice to more great stories over time.