Set in England circa 1769, and revolving around the court case that established the precedent which would eventually bring about the abolishment of slavery to the country, Belle tells the story of Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the mixed race daughter of an Admiral and slave, who is adopted into the aristocratic family of her great uncle – the Judge (Tom Wilkinson) who is tasked with presiding over the case. The film centers on the educated and fiercely independent Dido as she lobbies for change and the freedom for her people, while still trying to observe the customs of her time, and it is the conflict between the two that drives the heart of the narrative.
As you would expect, the film primarily concerns itself with issues of race, particularly in dealing with the social conventions of the day. While Dido’s benefactors love and care for her, and certainly aren’t racist at heart, they are in effect slaves to attitudes of their time, and it is when they discriminate against Dido (and not the overt racism she experiences) that provides some of the films more heartbreaking moments.
The period is perfectly established from the outset and beautifully re-enforced throughout in the lavish production and costume design (Simon Bowles and Claudio Campana & Ben Smith, respectively). Ben Smithard’s gorgeous cinematography captures both splendidly. Rachel Portman’s fine orchestral musical score evokes at once the period and the emotions of the characters. Considering the rich tradition of technical perfection in period pieces such as this, on this level, Belle is majestic, and Amma Asante’s direction of all these elements, sublime.
The relatively unknown Mbatha-Raw gives a powerful and commanding performance in the lead role – a scene where she reaches her lowest ebb and tries to slap and pull the dark skin from her body is particularly harrowing. She is destined to go onto bigger things. It would tempting to say that Wilkinson gives the performance of his career, but with a career as strong as his, it would be too hard to make such a statement, he is however, perfectly suited to his conflicted aristocrat. While most of the rest of the cast are also fine (if not given as rewarding roles), Sam Reid as Dido’s love interest is fatally miscast and gives a performance of unbearable earnest, not helped by the sanctimonious speechifying of some of his dialogue.
Although intelligent and at times punctuated with tremendous wit, Misan Sagay’s dialogue is occasionally labored with unnecessary dramatic sentiments which are rendered redundant by the strength of the performances. The over-all love story also has the effect of cheapening the real story when it is given more attention at the end of the film, which is particularly disappointing given the delicate balancing act the film achieves until then.
These few quibbles aside, Belle is a most enjoyable film with some fine performances and story that needs to be told. Hopefully it will find the audience it deserves.
Belle is in Australian cinemas from 8 May through Icon Films.