Period pictures are often a gamble. Victorian era classism, wardrobe and semantics can be a lot of excess for anyone to swallow in today’s modern day and age. Or perhaps we’ve just become lazy – something akin to the lack of appreciation one may have for the works of Shakespeare or Jane Austen. But then, do present interpretations of these stories really do justice to their original intent? Are they an accurate portrayal of life’s struggles from centuries passed? In short, the point I’m about to make with Amma Asante’s latest project as director in 10 years is that, no matter your present opinion on Victorian fiction or chick-flicks… there’s something very sincere… and very human about ‘Belle’.
The premise is simple. Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), as the biological daughter of an English general (a gentleman of significant means) and a woman of African descent, grows up through her adulthood in the care of her uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and immediate family; including a cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). With slavery still very much a way of life, Dido’s heritage becomes something of a major controversy throughout the aristocratic community. This is especially present in consideration of her uncle’s presiding, as judge, over a history-changing court case involving the intentional drowning of slaves during transport across the Atlantic.
Raised as a lady, and encouraged to conduct herself as such, Dido finds herself in a rather precarious situation. As the heiress to her father’s fortune, she has realized herself a free woman ‘twice over’ – being both a freed woman of color, and a lady who needn’t concern herself with finding a husband for the soul purpose of solidifying her stature. And yet, she is tormented by the idea that she cannot pursue her curiosities into such matters as those handled by the judiciary system; and/or be allowed to fall in love with a man whom she considers her intellectual equal.
Throughout her entry into adulthood, and thus, society, she quickly realizes that she is viewed as the ‘black sheep’ of the family. Strong, curious, and not to be taken advantage of, Dido ventures through the torments of aristocratic society, the strict rules of her household, and past her own sense of self doubt to realize that her destiny is to break the rules – and be proud of doing so.
In the end, ‘Belle’ feels like the marriage of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and ‘Pride & Prejudice’. But the beauty of it all, is that it’s based on actual events. And that, my friends, is what is truly refreshing about the entire story. As an American educated in public schools, the story upon which ‘Belle’ is based never came across my desk…. or if it did, not much focus was placed on it. But when one learns of the significance behind each character and their actions, the story seems that much more present, more real…. as though speaking volumes to you from generations ago. Many of us know what it’s like to be made fun of, bullied, etc. But slavery and society’s blind-eye approach to the abuse of subservient women is certainly less heard of today.
Mbatha-Raw is powerful, honest, naive and beautiful in her portrayal a soul innocent to the ways of a horrifying world. A world that she feels compelled to change through means of idealism and love. James Norton and Tom Felton, both as gentlemen of romantic interest, are ruthless in their bringing to life the sly nature of wolves disguised as gentlemen. But then, this is politics after all.
‘Belle’ has something for everyone. It speaks strongly to the unwavering courage of educated women; to the adventurous ideals by those who challenge the status quo; to the notion of true love existing outside of traditionally understood confines; and to living with a sense of grace and humor. Well executed and, perhaps, a bit on the side of political correctness, ‘Belle’ will leave you with a fresh, new perspective into the fascinating lives of those who paved the way to the abolition of slavery in England nearly a century before the unites States even considered the possibility of such an evolution.