I described Belle to a friend as “an 18th-century period piece interrogating race and class — with romance, and pretty dresses.” The poster alone sends a little jolt: here’s a typical Jane Austen adaptation-type poster, with a pretty young woman in a gorgeous dress, in a well-appointed room, hands demurely clasped in front of her, awaiting the man that will be a good match for her. But this pretty young woman isn’t white, as all the others in all the other posters are; she’s black.
Loosely based on a true story, Belle follows the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, “natural” daughter of Sir John Linsday, a naval officer who, according to the history books, took a woman as concubine after he captured a Spanish slave ship and later had a child with her, but according to the movie was very much in love with Dido’s mother and was bereft when she died. Combing through the euphemisms and niceties, it’s clear that Dido’s mother had a difficult life and was allowed no agency. However, her daughter fared better. Her father claimed her as his daughter (called illegitimate or natural because he was not married to her mother) and took her to live with his aunt and uncle while he continued his career in the British Navy.
Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)’s uncle, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), is the Lord Chief Justice, and the film takes place during his deliberations in the Zong massacre, in which the owners of a slave ship were trying to claim insurance money for “wasted cargo” after they said they were forced to throw all their slave cargo in the sea because they were too ill and they couldn’t get enough water. What the earl has to decide is whether this is insurance fraud — whether the captain of the slave ship had opportunities to get water for the slaves and keep them healthy, or whether he deliberately let them get sick in order to justify killing them and claiming the insurance money. THE FUCK. This is the kind of logic you enter into when you decide that some human beings are not human beings. These are the kinds of legal cases you come up against. This was a real case, by the way, not invented for the movie. Part of the film is Belle’s political awakening as she realizes she is not so far removed from the murdered passengers on the Zong, and she tries to convince her uncle of the moral implications of ignoring damning evidence about the captain’s actions, and of the practice of slavery in general.
She is assisted in this by John Davinier (Sam Reid), a young legal student with lofty ambitions and an abhorrence of slavery. He falls for Dido early on, but in the classic style, she cannot see how much she loves him until she has some false starts with another gentleman who on the surface seems more suitable. This other suitor, Oliver Ashford (James Norton), is a second son with no money of his own, and he wants to marry Dido for the small but very acceptable fortune her father has left her. He also finds her easy on the eyes and makes several cringeworthy comments about trying something exotic. Dido sees in him the chance of continuing to live the life she has been accustomed to since she was a child, that of a lady.
One of the best things about this movie is the way writer Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante show the complexity of Belle’s situation: she is mixed-race, which has no official position in British society, so there are no rules for her to follow in a world that depends on rules to guide everything from the way you greet someone to how you eat your food. She is the daughter of a gentleman, but not his “legitimate” daughter, so she is less acceptable than her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who is unloved by her father but at least a “legitimate” member of his family. On the other hand, Elizabeth has no money waiting for her and so must make a match on her looks and personality alone, which she finds to her distress aren’t enough for most gentlemen of her acquaintance; whereas Belle has inherited a small fortune and so has a more secure future and can marry for position or even, perhaps, love. Belle has been raised as a lady who expects the same consideration afforded to Elizabeth, while at the same time she is not allowed to eat with the family when company is there, but instead must eat by herself in the kitchen in what her uncle deems an acceptable compromise on status.
I could say so much more about this film, and how smart it is and how beautiful the styling and costuming, or how good the performances are and how sweet the little unexpected moments of complexity many of the characters are allowed to have. And I haven’t even mentioned the painting that was the jumping-off point for the whole film! But I’ll just leave it here and say, if you’re looking for a good film that’s deep but not heavy, that’s intelligent but also a good romance, this is it.