As a big fan of period dramas, I’ve been looking forward to this film since last November when I first heard about it. Well, seven months later I finally got to see it and it’s certainly worth the wait.
The film opens with a Royal Navy Admiral (Matthew Goode) picking up a young mixed-race girl from a ship and brought her to live with his aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson), where she’s raised alongside her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Unlike the Austen/Brontës adaptations, Belle is based on a true story. In fact, filmmaker Amma Assante was inspired by an 18th century painting of the real life miss Belle. It’s also the first time I saw a period drama starring a mixed race woman, an illegitimate child no less, which no doubt made for a tricky predicament growing up in Georgian era. Lord Mansfield tried to shelter her from the horror of slavery, but not from the dismal reality of racism.
How may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants and too low in rank to dine with my family?
The question above that Belle posed to Lord Mansfield (whom she called ‘papa’) sums up her situation perfectly. Though Belle is brought up in such a privileged home, she’s constantly reminded of her place in the world, which is really no place for anyone to belong to. The color of her skin also prevents her from fully participating in society traditions and especially the issue of finding a suitable husband. The fact that Belle later becomes a woman of means after she inherited her father’s considerable fortune only made it trickier. It’s as if she’s a ‘free slave who begs for a master,’ Belle said to her confidante, a dashing and idealistic son of a vicar, John Davinier (Sam Reid).
Many people are likely comparing this film to 12 Years of Slave, but I think this this film is more akin to the excellent-yet-underrated Amazing Grace, which focused on British politician William Wilberforce who endeavored to end the British transatlantic slave trade in the late 1700s. As in Amazing Grace, there’s no gory brutality of slavery being shown, but it doesn’t mean we didn’t feel the barbaric reality of such practice. Yet unlike those two films (and most films of its kind), it’s intriguing to see the story of racial inequality from a woman’s point of view. The fact that we’ve got a British female director (Amma Assante) at the helm and a female screenwriter penning the script (Misan Sagay) certainly gave the film a unique perspective.
Assante’s astute direction offers a nice balance between the moral drama and the love story, as we become more and more invested in the characters, most especially Belle. I love how Assante re-enacted the making of the painting I mentioned above, it’s one of the many highlights of the film for me. There are also a few humorous moments to break the tension of the heavy subject matter. The cinematography and art direction are beautiful, the costumes are as gorgeous as the cast, but most importantly, it’s not style over substance. The dialog feels natural and the script is laden with lots of quotable remarks that really drive the sentiments home.
As for the performances, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle is the heart and soul of this film. I was quite taken by the English actress’ nuanced and emotional performance right from the start. This is hopefully her first of many leading roles as she is not only beautiful, but has the screen charisma to match. She’s able to convey a deep sense of hurt, but is just as convincing when she’s fiercely-defiant. The ensemble cast is chock full of the best of British thespians, starting with Wilkinson and Watson, as well as Penelope Wilson and Miranda Richardson delivering memorable supporting roles. Aussie-born British actor Sam Reid has everything you’d want in a period drama hero: dashing, gentle, kind, and with strong conviction. His Davinier is almost too good to be true, plus his scorching chemistry with Mbatha-Raw made for some breathless moments. The weak link here to me is Tom Felton who once again plays a villain of sort, all contemptuous sneer as the racist would-be suitor to Belle’s cousin Elizabeth. He’s practically playing a variation of Harry Potter‘s Draco Malfoy here.
Though the finale is quite predictable, it still packs quite an emotional punch. Now, I don’t know how historically Belle had influenced the abolition of slavery in England, but it can be presumed that she had a hand in shaping the decision of Lord Mansfield as Lord Chief Justice in his ruling over the Zong Massacre case. It’s the case where the slaves were deemed more worthy dead than alive, a reality that could very well happened to Dido herself had it not been for the ‘grace of God,’ as Davinier put it. Even with the creative license taken, the essence of Belle’s story seems intact.
Final Thoughts: I knew this film would be good, but I absolutely loved this film and one I’d definitely add to my Blu-ray collection. I always find the social class intricacies in period dramas deeply intriguing, but Belle adds more layers to that with the race and slavery issue, whilst keeping a love story at the core. I really think that even those who aren’t fond of this genre would find this moving and inspiring. An impressive sophomore effort from miss Assante, I sure hope continues to make more films in the future!
Have you seen Belle? I’d love to hear what you think.