Directed by Amma Asante, Belle, a story based on true events, tells the story of the illegitimate mulatto child of a Royal Navy man who is raised in the affluence of British society. After a snappy montage of an opening, we see the father of this mulatto child boldly claim her and then go on to leave her with his extended family seeing as the child’s mother has passed on because he is tied down by service to the king in his capacity as a naval officer. The girl is named Belle by her father but called Dido by her uncle and aunts.
We follow the film as Belle reaches adulthood at which point she is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She is now an epitome of beauty and intellect as provided by the lavish and privileged upbringing and she, like her white cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) is ripe for marriage. The film dedicates some time to the intricacies of the marriage game in the late 18th to early 19th centuries British society. Her marriage prospects appear unusual because on the one hand she is mixed race and seemingly not befitting the upper class, whilst she also cannot marry outside her class because it would compromise her social standing. Also, she has come into some wealth, making some suitors think twice
Her race doesn’t appear to take up the centre stage I thought it would. The character of Belle is aware of the position her skin colour has put her in and she doesn’t sulk. She doesn’t join the family for dinner when high ranking guest come in and she is content with that and understands why things are the way they are. Race only really comes to the fore when Dido’s uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) is hearing a case involving a slave ship and the question of whether human beings can be insured like cargo. Dido hears about the case in bits but is given more of a stake by John Davinier (Sam Reid), a vicar’s son, and let’s not forget the marriage matters concerning her and Elizabeth are going on in the background.
There are snippets of romance as Dido’s aunts played by Emily Watson and Penelope Wilton nudge her towards the son of a respected family but she is developing a bit of an attraction to the vicar’s son. The film juggles its various agendas admirably and tastefully in this shrewdly engaging script. We see strong performances all round and Mbatha-Raw anchors the film with a nuanced showing of a girl struggling with the identity conferred on her by society and her family. As Belle puts it, she has been blessed with freedom twice over but she appears anything but.
As I watched proceedings unfold, my mind drifted to a film from last year, 42, about remarkable circumstances confronting Jackie Robinson which I felt warranted more incisive handling. Similar feelings seeped through as I watched Belle because the film does become pretty conventional at some points and for events tagged as ground-breaking, and they are, they are pretty much presented in stride. That said, this is a character driven piece and Asante sets out wanting to tell us the story of Belle and she does a great job of it not getting side-tracked by events going on around her. I’m not a fan of the Austen brand of cinema.
I dozed my way through the first 15 minutes of Pride and Prejudice I’m sorry to say. I can’t say for sure this period drama falls firmly in that mould mainly because I found it quite enjoyable having already seen it twice. It is engaging on a plot and character level and I am looking forward to what future offerings our director of Ghanaian descent may have.