Film Title: Belle
Director: Amma Asante
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson
Running Time: 104 min
Our American chums have gone nuts for Belle. Who can blame them? Corsets and big houses and heaving bosoms? Oh, my, if it isn’t everything we’ve come to love about British costume drama. A central romance sees two of the planet’s most beautiful people (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid) exchange meaningful glances and longing sighs. A coterie of matriarchs (concerned mother Emily Watson, faithful maiden aunt Penelope Wilton) provide engaging period banter about husbands and dowries. Celebrated British actors lurk in every corner.
It’s all very Jane Austen, in every sense: hidden in the silky folds is a wealth of social critique and historical detail. Dido Elizabeth Belle, the film’s heroine, was Britain’s first aristocrat of colour. Born some 15 years before the author of Pride and Prejudice, Dido suffers the same anxieties that dominate the lives of various Dashwoods and Bennets. The issue of race adds further complications.
As a child, Dido’s aristocratic naval father (Matthew Goode) leaves her in the care of his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. As a young woman, essayed by the remarkable Gugu M’batha-Raw, Dido lives a strange half-life. She may not sit with guests at family dinners, but she may join the ladies afterwards. She enjoys the constant companionship of her adopted sister, Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Godon), although only one of them will make a society debut.
Against all odds, Dido does make an impression on an idealistic young abolitionist (Reid). But will such a relationship be permitted? And can Dido sway her uncle as he deliberates on a landmark slavery case?
The camera loves Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Dido, and so it should. Her protestations against lowly social status register as delicate quivers and sharp intakes of breath. Director Amma Asante and cinematographer Ben Smithard bathe their star in golden light from close angles.
It’s typical of the film’s swoon effect: everything on screen is sumptuous. But there are larger questions about slavery and race and gender embroidered into every exchange and gesture.
Read Tara Brady's interview with Belle director Amma Asante here