Review by-Jarrett Leahy & Michelle Zenor
Conceived through a forbidden relationship between a Royal Navy Captain and a beloved former slave, Dido Elizabeth Belle is rescued from a life of penury and hardship by her seafaring father who entrusts his daughter to her aristocratic and benevolent great uncle, Lord Mansfield. Being of mixed race, Dido is forbidden from partaking in many of the societal rituals normally afforded an heiress of her social class. Determined not to let the color of her skin limit her life’s path, Dido sets out to find love while trying to sway her uncle to use his tremendous power as Lord Chief Justice of the High Court to do what is right for the future of British society. Based on a true story of an 18th century “mulatto,” Belle is the story of the woman who played a small yet important role in the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain.
A former child actress, British filmmaker Amma Asante made her directorial debut with the 2004 drama, A Way of Life. A decade later, Asante has returned, bringing to the screen one of the most eloquent and moving period dramas of the year. Seen by some as an exotic curiosity, by most others as a grotesque abomination, Dido is a woman who has the lineage, wealth, and upbringing of a British heiress, yet she is prohibited from eating at the same table as the rest of her family during formal dinners. “How can I be too high of rank to dine with the servants, but too low of rank to dine with my own family?” This heartfelt inquiry is the perfect example of the agonizing conundrum this strong-willed young woman struggles with throughout the film.
Blessed with a natural beauty that rivals the likes of Kerry Washington, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a relatively unknown English actress, was chosen to play the film’s title character. Shackled by the societal etiquette of the time, Mbatha-Raw’s character of Dido stoically suffers indignities most would find impossible to endure. These constraints placed on Dido highlight Mbatha-Raw’s instinctive talent to convey a variety of emotions with her impressively expressive countenance. Thanks to such a rare combination of beauty and artistry, I foresee Belle being the springboard to stardom for Mbatha-Raw, who more than held her own next to veteran stars Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson.
Vibrant cinematography and authentic period costumes add to the enjoyment of this stirring drama. Lord Mansfield’s vast, expansive estate is lavishly adorned with a saturated color palette of ancestral paintings and priceless artifacts conveying the aura of the aristocratic elite. In stark contrast, scenes shot amongst the common folk feel far more drab and monochromatic, offering a visual of a drastic disparity between the haves and have-nots in this severely stratified society. The film also deftly explores the demeaning rituals of 18th century courting in Great Britain. Eligible women were seen as a type of possession to be put on display and handed off to the highest male bidder, similar to the country’s slave trade.
Beautifully shot and highlighted by a breakout performance from the film’s gifted young star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle is an opulent film experience that simply looks the way a British period piece should look. Not just a love story, Belle is also a compelling courtroom drama that explores the little known true story of Lord Mansfield’s role in the eventual abolition of slavery in Great Britain. In the year 2014, it’s a shame that a great movie from a female filmmaker is still such a rarity. But unfortunately, the world of cinema, for many reasons, is still an art form dominated by males. Belle proves yet again that if given the opportunity, female directors like Amma Asante can conceive and execute movingly elegant and alluring films that would make Ismail Merchant and James Ivory proud.-JL & MZ