I have an old fiend who believes without question that the trailers you see before a DVD are a perfect indication of the quality of the movie you are about to watch. I must admit that she has been spot on much of the time. Her theory was going through my head while I was viewing BELLE as I remember seeing the trailer for it in theaters and feeling utterly unmotivated to see the film. I wondered about the hypothesis in reverse: Perhaps, it is those films whose trailer looks SO awesome that in the end fall short, and vice versa. That is certainly the case with BELLE. It’s hard to grip viewers with thrilling, breathless, sleep-at-the-theater-the-night-before anticipation for a period piece given that they are usually low on pyrotechnics, super-suits and Jason Statham. With his shirt off. Sweaty. I digress. BELLE is not only a very good story based on factual events, it is a good film and it is an important film in my opinion. If we are going to talk about slavery films, I debated heartily over 12 YEARS A SLAVE which I feel fell short of it’s potential and failed to hook me emotionally. I am very lonely in my position in regard to that film but I’m fine with that. While I do not want to reduce my opinion to mere gender differences it may very well be because I am a woman that my passion, rage and heartbreak were roused by BELLE, as it is a film as much about women and their roles, value and place in society as it is about slavery. It delivers several threads woven seamlessly together and it works. It fortunately doesn’t devolve into hyperbole and bodice ripping like so many historical films. I’ve got nothing against some good bodice ripping mind you but its a cheap thrill compared to intelligently presented ethical discussions. And of course there’s a smidge of love story thrown in for good measure.
BELLE is based upon the life of the real Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1904) who was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and a slave known as Maria Belle. Lindsay took Belle, played by the bewitching Gugu Mbatha-Raw, to be raised by his uncle the First Earl of Mansfield, William Murray (portrayed by the unparalleled Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (played by Emily Mortimer), who had no children of their own. Already in their care was the young Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) and it was thought it would be good for the Lady Murray to have a companion her own age. William Murray was also during that period serving as Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench (great title I say) who was, by virtue of his judgment in Somersett’s Case, instrumental in abolishing slavery in England. In the film the pivotal case involves a slave ship with a tragic end but it matters not – the life of Dido Belle, the trajectory of the legal case, marriage for position and power versus love and a ruthless portrait of women’s place in society all play well together in the film. The irony of the Lord Chief of Justice having to raise an illegitimate half back girl is not lost on the audience. It is in fact the very tension between what he believes, feels and lives in his own home versus what he is charged to rule upon, and the outcome of which will either uphold and condone the British slave trade, or strike it down and alter the entire nation, that serves as a smart and solid skeleton for Belle’s personal story. Additionally we are given a painful view from the standpoint of the women of the age and the sad reality that their standing in society and ‘net worth’ are the only values they have. Marriage is but a business deal and to act out of fondness or, god forbid, love, is unimaginable. While I hesitate to make an analogy between women’s caste and slavery it is hard to ignore that women were bartered for money, position, land and power. They had zero self-determination whatsoever. Where then does that leave our Belle? A black woman who is higher than a slave, but cannot eat with her family or at a formal dinner because of others’ “defendable objections.” There is a turning point in the film which allows Belle to believe that she has choices, perhaps more than many young women, but in the end it still leaves her – in her own words – nowhere. She is family to the Murrays, but not completely. She is independent and safe, but not really. She is marriageable and beautiful, but not enough. Because she is black. Black enough to be a diversion and “exotic,” but too much to be equal. The scenes in which this ugly truth is displayed made me squirm more than anything graphic I’ve ever seen in another film about slavery. It may be because of the seemingly intelligent civilized society that is the setting of BELLE, and that is why we shudder – we want to believe they know better. Maybe they do, but not to act on it early or frequently enough. No matter how beautiful, intelligent and talented Belle may be we are never far from being reminded that a crushing blow lies just moments away and once more the rug will be pulled out from under her shoving her firmly back in her place. Nowhere.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is absolutely captivating. She effectively communicates both strength and vulnerability with just her gaze and delivers her lines with conviction and power. Tom Wilkinson is as usual flawless and it is always a joy to watch an actor who has the skill to turn a mood with the mere inflection of a syllable. Emily Mortimer too shows restraint and delicacy staying far from what could have been a stereotypically passive and shrill wife. Sam Reid plays John Divinier, one of Belle’s potential suitors. His character is pivotal in the film and allows for a meeting of the mind and spirit with Belle. However I found myself wishing that Reid had more sheer physical presence. I felt that I was watching an 18th century surfer dude and it left me yearning for his physicality and manner to match his character’s passion, beliefs and drive. He is just a bit too soft and young to visually covey what his fine dialogue does. The film is deftly edited and that is saying a lot these days. It moves along smoothly and swiftly, giving us only necessary details and visuals, and there is little that is superfluous. Director Amma Assante has one previous feature film under her belt and evidently has an aptitude for working with her female characters in particular. It is not that the men in BELLE are one dimensional, especially not Wilkinson who moved me to tears more than once, it is more that they are mere pawns placed among Belle who allow her to see her path more clearly. It is a lovely film visually but it does not dwell on the landscape as a crutch as so many sweeping historical sagas tend to do. Giant green carpets of lawn and columnar manor homes can make up for a multitude of sins in screenwriting. BELLE is purely character driven and asks of its audience important questions:. What, exactly, is freedom? Are we free only in comparison to some construct or constraint? What are we willing to risk to do the “right” thing? How do you effect change when you are an instrumental part of the machine which created and upholds inequality and suffering? I am not saying BELLE answers all of these deep quandaries, but it does a lovely job asking the right questions and showing us about love, family, principles and honor.
Director: Amma Assante
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Mortimer, Sarah Gadon, Sam Reid, Miranda Richardson, James Norton, Tom Felton
Running Time: 104 minutes
Movie Review Belle