This British drama is based on the 1779 painting of the protagonist of the text, Dido Elizabeth Belle, along with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. The film carefully tells the tale of Belle, with wider racial and social struggles, along with the Zong massacre case which her great-uncle’s ruling became one of many steps in changing the laws regarding slavery in British colonies. Belle is an account of an individual and a society, intricately weaving between the both to construct a valuable text based on the horrors of our past.
The film was eager to inform us of its authenticity before moving to aesthetic brilliance with a vibrant emerald colour palette, complemented by deep blues, purples and pinks that characterised the 18th century costume. We see the initial young Dido Belle (the product of his father’s sexual relations with a slave on his travels) introduced to the aristocratic family that her white father has left her under the care of due to his occupational demands. The mute, tame, youthful Belle – representing the silent voice of ethnic minorities at the time in British colonies – suddenly turns into a young woman and time leaps ahead, the film skipping a Bildungsroman potential, with the rest of her family ageing approximately one wrinkle and a walking stick here and there. This inaccuracy of time can be overlooked, however, with the rest of the film offering something which is quite memorable.
The film was particularly dexterous when depicting the social and economic considerations, restrictions and prejudice that shape the world around the characters in the film, echoing the conventional themes of an Austen novel. However, these Austen echoes are manipulated with the added racial dimension. Along with the racial slur that constituted the idiolect of some characters and the constant obliteration of Belle with regard to how she could not eat with the family and guests because of the colour of her skin, the scene of sexual abuse later in the film was profound, disturbing and pushed the boundaries of what began as more of a tame portrayal set against other recent slavery stories, such as 12 Years a Slave. This particular scene, which involves Tom Felton as James Ashford, is shocking and jolting and could be argued to be misplaced. But it is exactly this misplacement that constructs the experience as a scarring one, upon Belle and the audience; it stands out. Until that scene, I saw Draco Malfoy in a silly wig. But in the intense scene, Felton was merely a shape in the shot and I was purely captivated by Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance as Belle.
I notably appreciated the representation of women in this film. Set in the 18th century, the film had major restrictions placed on it with the need for its authenticity and so the free movement of women was out of the question. However, the sisterhood nature that characterised Belle’s and Elizabeth’s relationship was warming, and although patriarchal strains pressurised the relationship, it was clear to identity the firm base of female love that was beneath it. Belle, as a non-white woman, didn’t just have a glass ceiling to shatter but a concrete one with almost every social restriction repressing her. However, she maintained composure and strength, and worked as an independent character, escaping the house to meet with her love and assist on the Zong massacre case as well as accepting and then, later, declining a proposal, never succumbing to society’s expectations. Belle was a character who was thrown into a world that didn’t accept her, but through utter fortitude and vitality, she reclaimed her shunned identity through changing acceptance and love that can only be put down to her doing.
With absolute magnificent screenwriting, the film travelled in a flourishing manner through layers of plot that kept me captivated. The fact that the romantic plot was a subplot, with the massacre case along with broad social criticism being priority, was especially admirable, showing the film’s ability not to be romanticised but to show an accurate portrayal that reached both a personal and societal level. Amma Asante told the tale of an individual, a society and a snippet of our history with an execution not as raw as others, but with an execution dressed in a corset. A very authentic corset.
Belle (2014), directed by Amma Asante, is distributed in the UK by Fox Searchlight Pictures, Certificate 12A. Watch the trailer below: