Next to the brutal depiction of slavery in Steve McQueen’s and John Ridley’s “12 Years a Slave,” the elegance and poise of “Belle” seems downright conservative. In fact, given its adherence to the conventions of the costume drama and in structuring its plot along the lines of a Jane Austen novel, you might even think that “Belle” was written and directed by whites. In fact, it was respectively written and directed by two black British women: Misan Sagay (of Nigerian descent) and Amman Asante (of Ghanaian descent). Inspired by Johann Zoffany’s 1778 portrait of two beautiful young women -one white, the other biracial- that now hangs in Scone Palace in Scotland, Sagay and Assante use those very same conventions to address issues of race, class and gender in 18th Century England.
The biracial woman in the painting is Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of Capt. Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and a slave. The young Dido is placed under the care of her great-uncle, the country’s chief justice Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), and his wife (Emily Watson). Unfortunately, Lindsay neglected to tell them that his daughter is black. Even so, both aristocrats accept her as a member of the family with one condition: she will dine with the servants when they are entertaining guests and only come out after dinner. Dido soon becomes a close confidant and companion to her half-cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, the white woman in the painting, who’s also under the care of Lord and Lady Mansfield.
Asante and Sagay waste no time and immediately move the story forward to introduce us to the adults Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). They are both now of marrying age and both face obstacles in finding the right match. As the heiress to Capt. Lindsay’s fortune, Dido is in a far stronger position than Elizabeth, who’s been left penniless by her father. Yet Dido’s race may shut her out of the marriage market. But money speaks louder than prejudice and Oliver, one of the outspoken Lady Ashford’s fortune-hunting sons, begins to woo her. His racist brother James (Tom Felton in full Draco Malfoy mode), himself chasing after Elizabeth, frowns upon Oliver’s actions.
Dido also begins to feel a rare attraction towards John Davinier (Sam Reud), Lord Mansfield’s hot-headed apprentice who is trying to convince the judge to make the right decision in a case involving the death of 142 diseased Africans who were hurled into the sea by the crew of the vessel that was carrying them to America and the ship’s owners decision to claim insurance for their “damaged cargo.” Lord Mansfield’s decision could either mark the beginning of the end of the slave trade in Great Britain or preserve the status quo. It is here that the movie begins to break free from the bonds imposed by literary convention as it delivers a convincing, heartfelt portrait of a woman who finds her place in the world.
The film inevitably takes certain liberties with Dido’s story, given that not much has been written about her. I wished Sagay and Asante had spent more time exploring Dido’s childhood: her upbringing in a wealthy household, the discrimination she may have faced early on from her family’s peer, etc. And yet, “Belle” never sanitizes that relationship: her family is as contradictory as the world she lives in, although a tad more benevolent.
Known to “Doctor Who” fans as Tish Jones, Martha Jones’ sister, during the David Tennant era, Gugu Mbatha-Raw carries this role with elegance, delicacy and hurt. She meets her match in Tom Wilkinson’s Lord Mansfield, a righteous, logical, level-headed defender of the status quo who, in the end, does the right thing based on the law and in common sense.
“Belle” is full of small, poignant moments such as when, in a bout of anger, Dido scratches her hand and face, as if she were trying to erase her skin or when a black maid teaches her how to properly comb her hair. Others are hard to watch, such as the scene where James verbally and almost physically abuses Dido. “Belle” is, in a way, an antidote to all those elegant, elegiac film and television adaptations of 18th Century British literature where good manners are celebrated. Asante and Sagay remind us that a dark history lies underneath the curtseys and dance and florid language. The history of an oppressive, dehumanizing system that treated women and people of color as so much merchandise. A system that paid for all those dances. Dido Elizabeth Belle was one of the lucky ones in escaping it. In that, she was also a true minority.