No one does period, factual film, better than Britain – often deriving it from a rich and frequently troubled history. Belle (2013), the new drama from director Amma Asante, and written by Misan Sagay, highlights a particularly unpleasant era in the country’s traumatic past, during which prejudices and injustices were faced not just by black people before slavery was abolished, but also more generally by women in Georgian England. Featuring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Emily Watson, and Tom Wilkinson, this film comes alive as those involved portray a sympathy for their characters which could only come from a deep empathy with the film’s core themes.
A lesser known episode from the period of history which led to the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, Belle tells the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed race daughter of an eighteenth century British naval officer, who is taken into the care by her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson), The Lord Chief Justice of England, and his wife (Watson). Afforded the privileges befitting her lineage, Belle is nonetheless ostracised from society due to her colour. However the outcome of a court case over which Lord Mansfield presides, has life-changing effects not just on the course of British law but also Belle’s future happiness.
Occasionally films like Belle appear which restore your faith in an industry which seems to be increasingly driven by populist culture. These are films which, as in the stories they tell, have a relevance which allows them to transcend time, and give them perennial relevance.
As with 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Mandella: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), Belle displays an empathy for its central character, clearly derived from the fact that those involved in its production felt an affinity with the subject. Only Asante’s second film as director – after the BAFTA winning A Way of Life (2004) – she steers the story with a light touch which belies her relative directorial inexperience. Here she captures perfectly the seriousness of Sagay’s vision of the story at the film’s heart, treating the often awkward subjects of racial and sexual inequality with sensitivity and feeling.
Wilkinson and Watson, along with Miranda Richardson and Penelope Wilton, portray their aristocratic characters with the gentrified air around which they have built successful careers exuding. However it is Mbatha-Raw as Belle – in her initial wide eyed innocence of, and then growing frustration with, the cruel inequality of the society which she finds herself born into – who lends the story a believability likely to move you to tears.
Besides the film’s political themes, it’s its evocative recreation of eighteenth century England which haunts the memory. Filmed at real historical locations, and with an eye to exquisite period detail, Belle proves why Britain still produces some of the industry’s most talented practitioners, as well as evocative cinematic experiences.
Belle reminds us of a dark part of Britain’s past, as well as why film still plays an essential part in keeping history alive.
Fox Searchlight UK
13th June 2014(UK)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson
Win:Belle Goodies (ends 29th June 2014)