Hey there–Kazia here!
A few weeks ago, while at my parents’ house during break, I had the good fortune to get my hands on a copy of Amma Asante’s 2013 film Belle. I had seen it once in theaters and was eagerly awaiting an opportunity to re-watch it. Luckily, I was not disappointed!
Belle tells the based-on-true-life story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Martha’s sister on Doctor Who), a woman about whom little is known except her biracial heritage and her portrait. Raised alongside her white cousin Elizabeth by their great-uncle and great-aunt Lord and Lady Mansfield (played by Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), Dido struggles with her position as an (ultimately wealthy) biracial woman in a society with extremely rigid social hierarchies based on race, class, and gender. Although her aunt and uncle attempt to maintain these social rules so that when she enters society she will “always know her place,” Dido spends her adolescence in a world unable to determine where she fits in society. When she begins to enter the marriage market, she finds a culture filled with both outright racism, especially from her beau’s mother and brother (played by Miranda Richardson and Tom Felton, reprising their respective roles as awful mother and white supremacist), and microagressions (disappointingly from her beau, played by Grantchester’s James Norton, as well as her family). When she meets John Davinier, a vicar’s son bent on entering the law and persuading Lord Mansfield (who is the Lord Chief Justice) to rule in the Zong insurance case which could (and indeed did) pave the way to end slavery in England, her life is changed, and she begins to find a place where she feels she belongs.
Mbatha-Raw beautifully renders heartbreaking scenes of Dido’s otherness, whether it is when a black maid teaches her the best way to brush her hair and she finds a pleasant comfort in their mutual recognition of her difference
or when she claws at her own skin because it is the thing that is restricting her so brutally in a culture of white supremacy.
Although the editing occasionally has the jumpy feel of a contemporary film, rather than the typically smooth, slow scene changes of many period dramas, this works to emphasize Belle’s complicated emotional state and in particular her outer and inner lives. Asante and co-screenwriter Misan Sagay expertly incorporate the idea and experience of intersectional oppression throughout the film. No character can attempt to pigeonhole Dido based on solely her race, class, or gender without another character jumping in to complicate her position in society. In doing so, they reflect contemporary reality in a way that many period pieces are unable to do, while never being gritty or feeling untrue to the time it is portraying.
And, of course, this wouldn’t be a period drama if it did not have superb costume and set design. I mean,
The term costume porn could have been invented just for this movie.
In all seriousness, though, this movie couldn’t be any more period drama-y if it tried. Class struggles, restrictive parents, and angst about the marriage market? Check. A cranky Penelope Wilton? Check. Unbelievably beautiful costumes? Check. Romance, complete with two proposals, conflict, rejection, and (of course) acceptance? Check. A soundtrack by Rachel Portman? Check. A happy ending? Check.
What else do you need to know?