Yes, it’s only June- and not even the end of June, so it can’t yet qualify as the middle of the year, but goddammit I’m going to (probably inaccurately) predict next year’s Academy Awards anyway. As even if it has nothing else going for it, “Belle” is the type of period drama that exists solely to get a best costume design award nomination. I mean, look at those bonnets! Look at those admirals’ hats that appear to have been stolen from a set of an Adam Ant music video! Look at those pearl necklaces!
“Belle” is a piece of speculative fiction about Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, best known as Martha Jones’ sister in Doctor Who), the illegitimate mixed race daughter of an 18th century navy commander who dumps her with his uncle Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) at the none-more period drama surroundings of the Kensington house estate. Modern historians know very little about Belle’s life at the estate, with a painting that currently resides in Scotland of her and her cousin being one of the few artefacts of her time there (the film shows us this painting as much as physically possible). Yet although the film all but draws a line over directly confronting any of the nastiness that would confront an illegitimate mixed-race woman in 18th century England, it still manages to address social issues of the period that are rarely discussed in pop culture, albeit clumsily.
For example, Dido exists in a world where her family connections ensure she is too high on the food chain to eat dinner with the servants, yet her illegitimacy (more of an issue than the colour of her skin, which only Tom Felton’s character seems to take real issue with, as he plays the designated cunt role in any film he’s in) ensures she can’t sit with her supposed family. In terms of shaping her character, this is important- but it is somewhat undercut by the fact that we never see any of the servants at the estate, and only see her semi-privileged point of view. In fact, the only other black character I remember seeing in the film was a servant at a completely different estate, whose general friendliness appeared to suggest she wasn’t subjected to the prejudice that she naturally would have been in those backward times.
The film is framed by a slavery lawsuit overseen by Mansfield that follows the Zong massacre, where 142 slaves were drowned so the ship owners didn’t have to replenish the remaining slaves with water and they could get back to land faster. This significant historical event, which climaxes in a Lincoln-esque courtroom scene and a plethora of end title cards emphasising how important this was in the march towards abolition, helps lend the film a sense of important historical legitimacy that it otherwise ignores in favour of being a bland period drama of the kind that screams “Sunday afternoons on ITV”. A fairly ordinary romantic subplot is similarly given a breath of fresh air as it helps contextualise what it is was like to be black, a woman or a black woman in the crazy period of time known as “the past”. When her cousin Elizabeth states that they are both “man’s property” it’s an effective bit of subtext; when Dido comes back to discuss this quote at length in an entirely different conversation later, it practically screams “HEY YOU! DID YOU NOT PICK UP THAT SUBTEXT EARLIER?”
So, all in all, 12 Years a Slave this is not- “Belle” is a bit of a mixed bag. The performances are fine, but nothing outstanding, and all the dialogue sounds exactly like you’d expect from such a mannered period drama (apart from an old timey racial slur that was new to my ears). And yet, despite all the faults, it remained interesting throughout- I wasn’t always entertained, but there was always something of significance to keep me interested. Director (and former Grange Hill actress!) Amma Asante has made a film that would be forgettable were it not for having an interesting history lesson at its core. Whether or not you want to go to the movies to watch a history lesson, which is essentially what it is despite how much dramatic licence has been taken, is another question altogether. Come for the movie, stay for the costumes.