Inspiration for Amma Asante’s sophomore feature, Belle (2013), was a tad unconventional; an 18th century painting entitled Dido and Elizabeth, which depicted a sprightly-looking, well-dressed black woman with her white cousin. By the standards of the day, this was a very unusual image that broke the social and artistic conventions of the age. Like the painting, Asante takes convention and turns it on its head, telling the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the mixed-race daughter of a naval captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) who leaves his illegitimate child in the care of his uncle, the Chief Justice of England Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson).
Growing up protected by the gilded walls of Kenwood House with her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), Belle is raised as an aristocrat, loved by her small family whose only insistence is that she cannot dine with them when guests are present. Amidst the manicured setting of Kenwood House, we see Belle living a charmed life; were it not for the mercy of her father and great uncle, she would have ended up a slave. Initially, the film feels like a by-the-numbers Jane Austen adaptation, where gowns rustle and young ladies cheekily laugh behind embroidered fans. Yet beneath this veneer lies a much more arresting story. This involves her uncle, who is presiding over the Zong massacre trial, one of the most famous cases of the 18th century where 142 slaves were tragically thrown overboard to their deaths.
With the arrival of zealous son of a clergyman John Davinier (Sam Reid) at the home, Belle’s eyes are opened to the world outside of her family’s ancestral abode, as well as feeling the flutterings of first love. With Belle, Asante successfully plays with the oft-seen conventions of the costume drama; there’s a young, spirited girl who is in want of a husband (to poorly mimic the language of Austen) and even a maiden aunt (played by Penelope Wilton), who embraces the role channelling Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley from Downton Abbey. These traditions are, however, usurped with panache. For starters, how often do we see a mixed-race woman front and centre of a story, let alone a costume drama? Further still, Asante takes a plot that is reminiscent of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) – full of dastardly cads (Tom Felton) and conniving socialites (Miranda Richardson) – and then suddenly find ourselves in an abolitionist drama.
This transition is perhaps a little clunky and is hindered by Reid’s overly ardent performance as Davinier, who in reality comes across all too whiny. Fortunately, the rest of the cast offer a comforting gravitas, especially Wilkinson whose performance shifts from stalwart man of the law to a cuddly grandfather figure. In essence, this is a Jane Austen drama with social and racial edge, and one that feels genuinely contemporary. Unlike Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013), which tackled head-on the issue of slavery across the pond unashamedly bluntly, Asante’s Belle cushions the blow whilst still giving ample space to its subject matter. It’s also clear that Mbatha-Raw is a precocious talent, superbly traversing her character’s arc that sees a disenfranchised child become a lade of grace and dignity.