Movie Review: Belle

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Born to a Royal Navy admiral and a black slave, Dido Belle Lindsey grows up in aristocracy and struggles to understand her place in the world.

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Amma Asante, 2014

As a child, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsey (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is brought by her father (Matthew Goode) to live at the home of her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the highest justice in England. She is raised with her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who becomes like a sister to her. As a mixed-race girl, Dido is raised under very specific conditions – she’s not allowed to dine with her family, but she’s too high in rank to eat with the servants. She grows to hate her own skin, but begins to question the racism apparent in society with the help of John Davinier (Sam Reid), the son of a deacon who wishes to be a lawyer. The case of the sinking of a slave ship brings society’s injustice into sharp focus as Dido navigates the trappings of high society and the tricky business of love and marriage.

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I was lucky to see a preview screening of Belle, which I’ve been looking forward to for some time. The fact that this is a film directed by a black woman, Amma Asante, about a little-known black female historical figure, I was eager to see the film since well before I saw the trailer. The resulting film is a mixed bag with significantly more good than bad, and hopefully one that a decent number of people will go see. It tackles racism head-on, but the story is also compelling and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a gorgeous and powerful lead. The scene where she pushes and pulls at her own skin, seemingly trying to rub the colour off, is an incredibly moving one. Mbatha-Raw imbues Dido with grace and fortitude, as well as a believable vulnerability. The rest of the cast achieves less consistent success – Tom Wilkinson, Emily Mortimer, and especially Miranda Richardson are good as the older generation, but Tom Felton proves one-note as a creepy antagonist (read: he’s playing Draco in a wig) and Sam Reid is particularly flat. I find it kind of hilarious that the actor they chose to play a character to wear his heart on his sleeve has two settings: monotone and SHOUTY. His competitor for Dido’s affections is played by the much more impressive James Norton, who bring enough charm and wit to his role that they have to make him a real jerk in order for Davinier to seem like a better option.

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw, James Norton, and director Amma Asante on the set of Belle

“Belle” carefully balances the traditional costume romance genre melodrama with political ideology, careful not to let one overpower the other. The fact that Dido is preoccupied with love while her own personhood is in question could become unbelievable if she herself weren’t so strong a character. The film explores multiple layers of oppression, though sometimes in less-than-subtle ways; the flighty Elizabeth, for instance, is the one who brings up the idea that women are given no more importance than being the property of men, while Davinier is self-righteous in his quest to give slaves their humanity. Lord Mansfield goes through a much more interesting journey, and the women around him are shown to be intelligent, thoughtful, and powerful, using their voices to influence him. The movie does wade into the shallow pool of melodrama a bit too often for my liking, though, and dulls the edge of its politics a bit too often. The costumes and hairstyles are appropriately gorgeous and the camera spends plenty of time adoring them. There are some terrific establishing shots – Dido’s hands smoothing out her skirt, the ribbon that ties together a string of pearls – that examine the benefits and trappings of Dido’s world in a visual medium. To me, the dialogue is not as strong as these visual elements of the movie. Still, it’s well worth watching and Amma Asante is a promising director.

Belle on IMDb

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