Indie Film Review: Belle
A mixed race child being thrust into a lifestyle she has no idea about in England in the 1800s. Belle, a work of historical fiction takes on a story about class, race and slavery with a black female lead and it throws lots of preconceived notions to the side.
After her mother’s death Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is taken by her father Captain Lindsay (Matthew Goode) to his ancestral home to be raised by her great Uncle and Aunt. While they were warned that he was bringing his illegitimate child they were completely taken aback that she is black. What may seem harsh is not when you acknowledge that at that period in time not only was willingly acknowledging an out of wedlock child but for her to be mixed-race was more unheard of. Being of higher status and title this was a scandal. Earl and Lady Mansfield played by Tom Wilkerson and Emily Watson converse along with Lady Mary (Penelope Wilton) about what they can and can’t do as well as what they are required to do.
Belle is raised in the home alongside her cousin Elizabeth. They are close in age and grow up as the best of friends as they share status and titles there are still things that are just not done. Elizabeth is strong-willed, talkative and unaware of boundaries. Belle, who goes by the name Dido throughout the film, is conservative, follows are rules and does not engage in things that aren’t proper. She never questions why things are they way they are. She cannot eat with the family because of her race, but she cannot eat with the servants because of her class. She takes the lessons she learned from Lady Mary the girls governess, (Penelope Wilton) to heart. Its never more apparent than when the family has another family over with 2 eligible sons one of which they are hoping to make a match with Elizabeth.
Most of the first half of Belle focuses on when Belle comes of age but will not be having a coming out or even going through the flurry of marriage proposals. She’s in a very unusual space which is made even more complicated when her father’s death makes her an heiress. Its clear that she’s seen very differently by different people. Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) the town gossip wants to see if the rumors are true she exists. Her eldest son James (Tom Felton) is being matched with Elziabeth till he finds out she’s been cut out of her father’s will through no fault of her own. Anyone who marries her will only be able to gain her status as she comes with no money. Can we talk a bit about Tom Felton? This is the first thing i’ve seen him in since the harry Potter franchise ended. He’s playing a swarming guy who despises Belle because she’s black and when Belle is courted by his younger brother Oliver (James Norton) he spends his moments enraged. While its not much of a range from his years as Draco Malfoy it makes me wonder if he’s capable of more than that type of character.
A subplot running the length of the film is about the Zong massacre and how the courts will rule. The Earl is the highest ranking judge in England and people wonder if having a black charge under his roof will make him more likely to rule in favor of the slavers who killed off some of their human cargo or the status quo of the day where slavery is still very much legal and the law of the land. He has a young man John, the son of the local Vicar who wishes to become a lawyer. Back then you need money or a title if you have neither and you don’t manage to marry into it you need sponsorship and that’s something the Earl can give him. At the same time he’s taken with Belle who is well read and knowledgeable. Belle finds herself torn between two lovers one she can marry who may or may not be in it for her inheritance and one who cannot marry her because he is too far below her rank to be a suitable husband.
Belle is a very well done film that weaves together all the subplots to make a great story. For the fans of period pieces and Jane Austen novels this will definitely appeal. The story which takes several poetic licenses is pretty solid throughout and definitely worth taking the time to watch.
My Rating: Full price
Director: Amma Asante
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Release Date: Limited release
Run time: 104 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG