Directed by: Amma Asante.
Written by: Misan Sagay.
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Dido Elizabeth Belle), Tom Wilkinson (Lord Mansfield), Sarah Gadon (Elizabeth Murray), Emily Watson (Lady Mansfield), Penelope Wilton (Lady Mary Murray), Sam Reid (John Davinier), Matthew Goode (Captain Sir John Lindsay), Miranda Richardson (Lady Ashford), James Norton (Oliver Ashford), Tom Felton (James Ashford), Lauren Julien-Box (Young Dido), Cara Jenkins (Young Elizabeth).
Belle is apparently based on a true story, but as happens with so many movies that make that claim, I cannot help but wonder just how accurate it is to the real life of its characters. Everything in the film seems far too pat and predictable – that everything comes together at precisely the right moment – the sort of thing that happens in the movies all the time, but very rarely in real life. It is an extraordinary story nonetheless, and one that should make for a fine movie. The problem with the movie is that the emotions seem strangely muted. This is one of those stories that is almost unbelievable – like 12 Years a Slave – yet did happen (at least in some version). But the film is too given with making speeches, too concerned with outward surfaces, so that I never really felt I got to know any of the characters – and their pain was too far removed from the surface, so that it barely registers at all. That’s a shame, because there is much to like about the film.
The film stars newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle – who is the illegitimate daughter of a gentleman, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), who wants his Uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife, (Emily Watson) to raise him as he goes off in the Navy. This is not an unusual request, and even if people looked down on illegitimate children at the time, they were often too polite to say anything about it – at least publicly. What complicates matters is simple – Dido’s mother was black, and she cannot hide the color of her skin. Lord Mansfield takes Dido in anyway – and raises her alongside their other niece, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) – but in a slightly different way. Dido is too high class to eat with the servants, but her skin color makes her too low class to eat with her family. She’s caught in the middle – and seems destined to live a lonely life. No gentleman would want to marry someone of her color, and everyone else would not be good enough for someone of her father’s bloodline.
Most of the action takes place over the course of a few months – when the Mansfield’s arrange for Elizabeth to “come out” into society to find a suitable husband. This will be difficult, because her mother died long ago, and her father has remarried – and at the behest of his new wife, has cut off Elizabeth – meaning she has no dowry to speak of. This marks her in contrast to Dido – whose father has recently died, and left her with a healthy income that will support her the rest of her life, but no gentleman will want her because of the color of her skin. At the same time that this is going on, Mansfield, who is the highest judge in the land, has to make a decision on the Zong case – where a shipping company drowned their “cargo” of slaves, presumably because the ship was running out of water, and not doing so would have meant the crew would also die. The insurance company doesn’t want to pay out – saying that fraud had been committed, and that the shipping company drowned diseased slaves that would be worthless to them as “merchandise” – so they are worth more dead than alive.
Dido has two suitors – the first is Oliver Ashford (James Norton) – who is from a good family, but is the second son of that family, and as such will receive nothing from his father. He has a name but no money – but Dido has money, and no other “options”. The second is John Davinier (Sam Reid), the son of a vicar, who wants to enter the law – who is somewhat below the Mansfield in terms of bloodline – and also who has angered Mansfield with his opinions about the Zong case – so he has no chance of being approved by them – even if he and Dido really do fall in love.
The film was directed by Amma Asante, who has clearly studied the work of Merchant-Ivory. The visual look of the film is quite good – full of fine costumes and set design. The film seems slightly dirtier than most costume dramas of its ilk – the streets and muddier. The emotions are just as buried however – as everyone has to don a mask of civility at all times, and never really say what they mean, because that would be improper. This is even true when discussing the Zong ship, and slavery, which most people in the movie seem to think is nothing more than a financial transaction – and an important one. The slave industry helps England financially – and surely their lives cannot be worth the same as white lives, right?
The lead performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw is quietly great. She tries very hard to play by the rules of a society that would like her to not exist, but is too “polite” to say anything directly to her face. Many don’t hesitate to say the cruelest things behind her back – but only one person (played by Tom Felton aka Draco Malfoy, who will probably always be stuck playing assholes, because he does it so well) actually says anything directly to her. This is a racist society, but one that likes to cloak itself in class and manners. Mbatha-Raw is the center of the movie – and her face does more to convey the emotion she is feeling than anything she could possibly say. The rest of the performances are fine – although at this point the likes of Wilkinson, Watson and Penelope Wilton (as a spinster aunt) can basically go on autopilot in a costume drama like this, and often do. Current Cronenberg muse Sarah Gadon is quite good as Elizabeth – but really only good enough to wish she had more to do. Reid is too stiff as Davinier, but that could have something to do with the fact that much of his dialogue is of the speechifying type that never really allows him to settle into his character.
That’s the problem with the movie as a whole – there are far too many speeches, where the characters seem to be speaking solely for the benefit of a modern audience. Misan Sagay’s screenplay falls into the old trap of “telling, not showing” where they basically spell out the themes of movie repeatedly through dialogue. That’s a shame because Mbatha-Raw’s performance is quite good, as is the direction. They just needed a subtler screenplay to make it all come together in a way this movie never quite does.