Belle – Amma Asante and an unlikely portrait. (Film Review)

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Please note: Belle opens in Australia this Thursday 8th of May, and this review contains a perspective that could constitute a spoiler.

At the heart of Amma Assante’s Belle is a great story, no doubt about it, but it suffers in credibility by trying to have a bet both ways – a problem, it seemed, that plagued Dido Elizabeth Belle throughout her life. Breaking down the barriers that are erected on race, sex and class distinction have not occurred when wealthy black women simply take their place at the previously white only dinner table. It is the conventions themselves that hold the spirit of what identifies one human creature as superior to another, and it is this shaky foundation that destabilises the entire film. It doesn’t work to use Jane Austen’s vernacular in a film about racial struggle, even if Jane Austen was writing at the same time as Belle was living her extraordinary life, because Jane Austen was working to break down societal conventions through realism – a language entirely ahead of her time, the use of which saw her virtually unpublishable in her day. Because Misan Sagay has obviously relied heavily on an Austen style of narration, Belle comes out as an odd hotch-potch of a film that isn’t sure if its romance or revolutionary at its heart, and it seems to have missed the spirit of the woman at the heart of the story, choosing instead to make her a feisty Elizabeth Bennett, destined as example and pillar of strength to all those around her, and in the end an entire life used as an example to others rather than the one she lived herself.

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To be fair, we know little of Dido Elizabeth Belle, but we can probably assume she didn’t act white all the time, or that she wanted to be remembered as acting white all the time. The famous painting purportedly of her by an unknown painter (Johann Zoffany is now known to not be the painter) depicts her as very energetic and dressed differently to Elizabeth Murray, fewer petticoats, a lower neckline, and a turban. Elizabeth Murray sits on an outdoor bench reading a book, Dido Elizabeth Belle has a cheeky look on her face, her finger on her cheek in mock coquetry, and carries a large bunch of flowers, Elizabeth reaches for the waist of Dido as if they are friends. Both are very beautiful, both stare out from the painting equally and there is no hint of a master slave relationship between them. However, Sagay’s Belle is more reserved and a constant symbol of the families political position. She is blameless black woman, beautiful, perfectly behaved and proud, her every effort to generously remind the family of their inherent racism is met with either a “not now Dido” that is eventually made to see the light or a Damascus conversion that has people respond to her with gratitude for showing them the way. She is used as a symbol of white oppression, rather than a fully fledged human creature in her own right, with feelings, mistakes, flaws and gifts; She is treated like the black angel who is the guiding light. It’s a terrible shame, because it would have been very interesting to know – even in creation – how a very intelligent black woman might have been within herself in that environment.

In the muddle of all this fascinating rule following (what does one DO with a black woman of rank?) is the true and horrific story of the slaves lost at sea. If the interesting and poignant story of Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his judicial presiding over the Zong Slave Ship case was genuinely important to Dido (and there is no reason to think it wasn’t) it was in an identification she made within herself to African slaves. This important relationship is something that is relegated to glances at the colour of the skin of the servant, rather than a passionate desire to protect her mother or her relatives. Again, this decision dehumanises the woman herself – surely her problems with the slave trade would have centered on her real mother, rather than a concern for the “help”. Not that I am suggesting Dido didn’t care about the “help”, just that it would have given us a picture of a person with a relationship to slavery, rather than a perfect angel floating around like a nun trying to save everyone from themselves. Possibly all this trouble lies in the writing controversy, for Belle is written by two people, Misan Sagay and Amma Asante, so this may account for the characterisation problems.

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What works much better with the way the film is put together, is the love story between Dido (a searingly lovely Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and John Davinier (Sam Reid) and where the film lets us down in the racism narrative, it makes up for in the narrative arc of the romance. This is where the film should have placed its bets, and left the politics to the background, although again, Dido is treated as level-headed and morally superior to everyone around her, even in love. But her clandestine meetings with her future husband, her refusal of her engagement to the wrong man, her battling convention all her life and again in her choice of partner is a ripper of a yarn, made all the more interesting because of her colour and her status. Had Assante chosen to sublimate the Zorn case, and stuck more with Dido’s strange place in her home, some sort of quest to relate to her maternal past, and her budding relationship with John Davinier, and a politically active drive out of that stew, we would have had a great film on our hands.

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However, with all this what makes Belle a better than average film despite these narrative errors, is the attention to detail in Anushia Nieradzik’s costuming, Simon Bowles Production design and Rachel Portman’s score. Belle looks lovely and the in-house filming particularly has an authenticity that contributes a great deal to any realism problems, particularly with the cast speaking as though they fell out of a long-lost Jane Austen novel. Unfortunately, in its political message, it joins the ranks of another poorly made surface level film about the negro slave trades that seems to be de rigueur over the last two years. At least Belle has a lovely romance to enjoy.

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