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There are a lot of great films made every year, but it’s rare I come across one that I can’t fault at all. Belle however, successfully fits that description.
Directed by Amma Asante, the film tells the true story of mixed-raced Dido Belle, who through unusual circumstances is brought up as part of the wealthy British Mansfield family. Lord Mansfield is the Lord Chief Justice – perhaps the most powerful man in England after the King. Dido and her cousin Elizabeth are part of a world where finding a husband is more about status than it is about love, but they will discover that not all men define status in the same way, placing different values on wealth and race.
While a love triangle does form, this is far from being the film’s core. Surrounding the romance, we see a tense social commentary of race, glass and gender with real historical significance; when Lord Mansfield starts to work on a horrific legal case regarding the mass murder of slaves for an insurance claim, Belle and ambitious law student John Davinier try to convince him to use his influence to stop the lives of human slaves from being insured. This might not seem particularly significant on paper to a 21st century audience, but the film shows it was an important message which would ultimately contribute to the abolition of slavery.
Despite dealing with the same subject matter, the film is in complete contrast to last year’s 12 Years a Slave. Although McQueen’s picture was deserved of the recognition it received for explicitly showing the brutal reality of slavery, Belle takes a much more subtle approach. It highlights the injustices from the other side of the coin, the people who reinforce racism through social convention, and by making their prejudices seem ‘normal’, it allows us to make the judgement ourselves, rather than coming across as didactic.
To single out an actor’s performance would be an injustice to the others – none of them let the side down. Gugu Mbatha-Raw held a perfect level of emotion in the lead role to keep us constantly engaged without making Belle’s story seem mawkish. Tom Wilkinson proved his versatility once again as the Earl of Mansfield, another success to go in his eclectic filmography which includes titles such as Batman Begins and The Full Monty. Penelope Wilton managed to retain her trademark humour without it seeming out of place in such a serious story – kudos to Misan Sagay’s screenplay for making this fit. Tom Felton was somehow even nastier here than as Draco Malfoy, a perfect contrast to the refreshing idealism of Sam Reid as John Davinier.
Belle is not your average costume drama. To stare absently at how well the eighteenth century has been recreated would be a waste of everyone’s time – as long as you follow the dialogue, which has been adjusted to a perfect balance of archaism and coherence, it’s easy to follow a story rich with emotion and historical import. For proof of how accurate the film’s symbolism is, you only have to see the final image which inspired the decision to tell the story on screen… but I won’t spoil. You’ve just got to watch it.
Belle is currently playing at the Dukes theatre. For more details of showing times and how to book, click here.