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British Film Review: Belle
Period costume dramas seem to have found a near-permanent home on TV at the moment – Downton had made sure of that – but their appearances in the cinema are more fleeting. And, when they do appear, it’s almost mandatory to have Keira Knightley in the cast. Thankfully, Belle is not only a Knightley free zone, it also brings a fresh and more contemporary approach to a well-tried formula.
The film is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate daughter of an 18th century Admiral, raised by her aristocratic great uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice of England. Spirited and intelligent, she stands out for two reasons. A legacy from her father means she’s financially independent, and she is also mixed race. As Lord Mansfield prepares to deliver judgement on a case that could lead to the end of slavery in England, Dido falls for an idealistic young lawyer who works for him and who awakes her social conscience.
Belle’s freshness comes from the resonances that go with the theme of slavery and the clearly drawn parallels about the status of women in 18th century English society. The film, however, tends to look at slavery from something of a distance, through Dido’s eyes. She’s our only direct connection with it. Even towards the end of the film when Lord Mansfield has to rule on the Zong case, which involved the horrific death of 142 African slaves, the scenes are confined to the law court and we are left to imagine their suffering. It’s all just a touch detached.
At least the film’s feminist stance has more clarity. The colour of Dido’s skin means that, despite her privileged upbringing, she is constantly on the side lines. When guests come to dinner, she’s obliged to eat in her room and can only join them afterwards. Yet, ironically, she is more independent than her husband-hunting cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), or most other women with aristocratic backgrounds. As Elizabeth points out, women are men’s “property”, expected to have a dowry and to hand over all their possessions to their husbands once married. The parallel is transparent. But, ironically, Dido won’t be any man’s property because of her inheritance from her father. Financially independent, she doesn’t have to marry if she doesn’t want to and also has the freedom to marry the man of her choice – which was not always the done thing.
Alongside the slavery and race storylines is also the love story between Dido and lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid) who influences Lord Mansfield in giving his verdict on the Zong case. While, again, it’s based on fact – Dido and Davinier eventually married – it also threatens to overshadow the main themes of the film and makes the final third feel unnecessarily lengthy.
Visually, the film is sumptuous: gorgeous dresses and settings, full of period details and beautifully photographed. And the acting is as you would expect from a cast that includes Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Penelope Wilton. Gugu Mbatha-Raw makes an impressive debut as Dido, spirited yet dignified and with more than enough poise to carry off those gowns. But as the mother of one of Elizabeth’s potential suitors, Miranda Richardson seems to be setting herself up as the successor to Maggie Smith as the Dowager Duchess of Put-Downs.
In addressing more modern themes, Belle’s director, Amma Asante, has brought new relevance to the costume drama, while keeping its visual appeal. That, combined with the strong acting, makes it eminently watchable – but if only it didn't spend quite so much time on that romance.
Belle is released at cinemas nationwide on Friday, 13 June.
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