With Belle, director Amma Asante has created a sumptuous eighteenth century costume drama, although it’s not costume drama exactly as we know it. There are the familiar grand stately homes with luxurious interiors and sweeping gardens, beautiful young ladies in yards of dazzling crinolines, passing the time on embroidery and pianofortes with handsome rich suitors in attendance. So far, so Jane Austen. But cousins Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth’s (Sarah Gadon) late-night whisperings about love and marriage are complicated not just by seventeenth century aristocratic concerns about status, wealth and prospects, but also by race, because Dido is the daughter of an African mother.
The film was inspired by an enigmatic painting of the two young women that appears to show them with equal status at a time when Africans were only portrayed as slaves to their white masters. It was also inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle. The illegitimate daughter of a respected English naval captain and an African slave, Dido is taken in by her great-uncle Lord Mansfield The Lord Chief Justice (Tom Wilkinson) and raised a stone’s throw from Arthouse, Crouch End in Kenwood House.
Dido is given the status, education and privileges her uncle believes their bloodline entitles her to, but his view is not shared by the establishment. Nor do the establishment share his enlightened ideas about slavery when he is given the task of ruling on the legality of an insurance claim made by the owners of a British slave ship which threw 142 Africans overboard. Details of this shocking crime penetrate Belle’s privileged world and ultimately turn this from a conventional period piece to an original perspective on the slave trade, as well as exposing the inhumanity on which the opulent lifestyles of much of the eighteenth century upper class was built.
Race subverts the class, gender and wealth calculations of the aristocracy, and there are some surprising alliances and outcomes. As Dido, a wealthy black woman says about marriage, why should she, ‘as a free negro beg for a master?’ But the film also has its share of romance, and fine performances from the cast, including Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson and Penelope Wilton.