Bear with me — I was very hungover when I watched this. Some detail may be fuzzy. And when I started watching I’d forgotten this was an Amma Asante film, so was pleasantly surprised every time I didn’t find myself having to cringe from patronising benevolent white people being presented as the pinnacle of goodness and kindness. The film is told very much through Belle’s own eyes, and half-hearted gestures from those around her are most definitely presented as such. Belle covers a lot in its running time, and handles issues of race, gender and class with far more sensitivity and dexterity than most British period dramas, though I’d like to have seen it all given a bit more space to breathe. A short series, rather than a film, might have allowed for a bit more depth and a more satisfying narrative arc.
Belle is based on the true story of the eighteenth-century woman Dido Elizabeth Belle, born into slavery, daughter of a slave woman and an officer in the British Navy. Her father whisks her from the life her mother endured to have her raised by his brother, who just happens to be the Lord Chief Justice, Earl of Mansfield, William Murray. Dido is raised in the household as one of the gentry, taught all the things a young woman should be taught, and eventually inherits enough to be free from an obligation to marry, making her an heiress. A few details of her life have been tweaked to make the story neater, and I tend to think it’s a pity when people making historical dramas feel the need to do this, but here I do at least see the point of some of the changes made.
The movie starts choppily, in a rush to get from Belle’s initial, disorienting arrival at Mansfield, through the key points of her situation as a young woman, speeding on like it’s set to fast-forward until it can introduce a wider cast of characters. It’s a shame to rush through all this, and though all the key information in there — Belle’s grave attitude towards the subservient role of other black people in her new home’s art collection; her cousin Elizabeth’s lack of a fortune and their closeness; the liminal status of their governess, Mary, who has wealth but never married — it feels perfunctory. Given the larger details of Belle’s life and the historical context that the movie alters, it’s a pity that it didn’t take the time to slow down and speculate on her character a little more. She comes across as a smart, principled woman who realises she is trapped by her unique status, but I’d just love to have had more depth to her and the other characters.
Things pick up as the movie zeroes in on two aspects of Belle’s life at home: the portrait that her uncle commissions of her and Elizabeth, and the case of the slave-ship Zong, in which Marshall is due to give a ruling. The story of the Zong massacre is a key part of the abolition movement in Britain — I think I first saw it dealt with in Garrow’s Law, which, like Belle, involves its own lawyer in proceedings rather than portraying the anti-slavery activist Granville Sharp, who was the most forceful voice against the slave-ship’s owners. Garrow’s Law did, however, concentrate on the significant testimony of Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave, and though there is no evidence that I know of that Belle ever met Equiano, her presence at Marshall’s ruling is equally unattested, so it might have been interesting to see the film speculate on her response to Equiano’s words too. Along with the touching scene where the black maid, Mabel, teaches Belle about the different way she needs to comb her hair, I’d like to have seen a bit more about Belle’s response to other black people in Britain at the time. She’s not quite as isolated as Stephen Black becomes in the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but it felt like something that could have been explored in more detail.
These are really minor gripes of course, Belle highlights important aspects of its heroine’s situation that I expect that a movie entirely crewed by white people would not have thought to include. The way in which Belle comes to appreciate the difference between her skin colour being tolerated by those who claim it doesn’t matter to them, and finding a genuine connection with someone who cares about changing the society that can only put up with her as an exception to the rule, is handled beautifully. The fragile allyship of her cousin Elizabeth, who does not want to hear that the man she’s courting is a racist who has been actively violent towards Belle, is another important scene, reinforcing Belle’s isolation as soon as she starts to become conscious of the difference of her position.
It is, at heart, a period romance, though. John Davinier — the name of Dido Elizabeth Belle’s actual husband, though he was a Frenchman and a gentleman’s steward, not an ambitious rural law-student — is an appealing, emotional foil for Belle. His low position allows the film to highlight issues of class and income alongside Belle’s own experiences of racism, and alongside the sexism that limits Mary’s options in later life and looks likely to limit Belle’s in the same way. Elizabeth’s story combines these issues too, showing the pressure on her to secure a wealthy husband because she has no income of her own. A lot of people find themselves trapped in the society depicted, and the film doesn’t allow any of them a truly easy way out. But in its ambitions to address all of these social problems, and to let Belle’s relationship with Davinier have the space to gain real emotional heft, I still think it perhaps tried to do too much.
I might have preferred a story without Davinier that focussed on the two rulings made by Marshall that were combined into one by the film, weaving in the story of the portrait as an elegant piece of symbolism for Belle’s fears and awareness of her unique status. Or, as I said above, a mini-series that did all that the movie does in a bit more depth, with a bit more slow characterisation and a bit more detail in the historical context. Despite this, it’s a significant development in British period drama, and I’d like to see a lot more historical dramas with this kind of clued-up attitude towards the intersectional nature of inequality. It also, inevitably, looks gorgeous, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance is quietly powerful, offering audiences as much insight into Belle’s inner unease as she can within the film’s clipped narrative frame. More like this please. Much more, in every sense.