Over the past few months, there have been a number of films that have dealt with real life stories about black figures with 12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station and now Belle. This one stands out from the crowd though by being one of the only historical films about a black women, in this case Dido Elizabeth Belle. The story of Belle is a really intriguing one since she was the illegitimate daughter of a naval figure whose uncle was the Lord Chief Justice at the time and as such, she was raised in the aristocracy. This, along with a painting of Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray, which was one of the first paintings to depict a black person at the same sightline as a white aristocrat means that she is an important figure in the history of black persons in the UK and this film is a great example of why she was an important figure.
The plot, as stated, focuses on Dido Elizabeth Belle, a black woman raised by members of the aristocracy and the position that she holds in society. Since she was black, there were concerns by her guardians over her status should she be married, i.e. that any man who marries her would reduce her standing if he was not an aristocrat or his standing if he was. Within all of this is a legal case which Dido’s uncle is presiding, that of the Zong Massacre in which a large group of slaves were drowned by the crew of a slave ship, which the slavers claimed was due to a lack of drinking water, and how this case reflects back on the relationship between Dido and her uncle. What really works about this is that these two elements of the film don’t feel like they are forced together but instead flow really naturally into each other, each one reflecting the lack of position that Dido has either in society or in the law and the growing sense of fear and shame that Dido feels over her situation, especially when she sees that her family employs black workers, with Dido asking whether or not the workers were slaves. There is also the different levels of acceptance that is felt over Dido with a few of the other people she encounters being downright disgusted that she is allowed to live at the same level as white aristocrats. Plus, these two stories are directly connected through Dido falling in love with John Davinier, an abolitionist who is following the Zong Massacre case and is trying to persuade William Murrary (Dido’s uncle) that the slaves were not killed due to low water supply and this element is the main one that helps these two storylines flow together naturally.
The cast meanwhile is a top list of great character actors, the key member being Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido and she is excellent here. She brilliantly portrays the dual sense of being to high and too low in social standing and the guilt that she feels over her situation when compared to that of other black people at the time. She also does a great job in regards to her conflicting feelings for a number of people throughout the film, in particular her uncle in regards to the Zong Massacre case. This is helped by an equally good performance by Tom Wilkinson, showing a lot of fear that Dido will not get the respect that she deserves in life and the conflict he has regarding the Zong case since, in the eyes of the law, the slavers were in their legal right to drown the slaves if the ship was running out of water, which means that the case was of vital importance to the abolitionist movement since, if Murray ruled in favour of the insurers, the rights of slaves not to be treated as cargo would start being set up. The seens that Mbatha-Raw and Wilkinson share with each other are the highlights of the film with both of them working brilliantly off each other. There are also great performances, in limited roles, by Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Matthew Goode and Penelope Wilton and, in terms of larger performances, Sam Reid is excellent as Davinier and Tom Felton, essentially does another variation on his Draco Malfoy routine and since he always does well with that his performance is great here, with there being some genuinely threatening moments from his performance. If there is a weak link in the cast it’s Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth Murray who is quite annoying in the first two acts of the film, however in the third act, her performance is a lot better.
The technical details are top notch for this type of period film with the design of the aristocratic homes, the streets and pubs of London and the courts being brilliant, along with the to-be-expected brilliant costume design with Amma Asante’s direction really highlighting the brilliant period detail throughout the film. Plus, the recreation of the painting of Dido and Elizabeth is excellent, especially when we see the recreation and the actual painting one after the other at the end of the film. In fact, the highlighting of the paintings overall really works to show the thematic weight of Dido and her position in society.
Overall, Belle is a really good film. Whilst the ending does feel a bit rushed and some of the actors aren’t utilised as well as they could have been, the brilliant production design, direction, script and performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tom Wilkinson make this a really interesting film.
My Rating: 4/5