by Tony Dayoub
Belle is a film that holds as many surprises as its lead character, played by the electrifying Gugu Mbatha-Raw. On the surface it's a costume drama about the young, mixed-race Dido Elizabeth Belle, brought up in an upper class British household led by her grandfather, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), England's Chief Justice (second in power only to the king, as one man puts it). In private, Dido is treated as separate but equal to her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). In public, though, she is forced to play the deferential role blacks were expected to, walking a few steps behind the rest of her family, waiting in the drawing room while they finish their meals in the dining room with any invited guests. A curious turn of events makes Dido an heiress to her father's great fortune while leaving Elizabeth penniless, giving Dido the surprising upper hand in finding a suitable marriage partner.
What's so astonishing about Belle is not the odd juxtaposition of a young black woman within the context of the traditional British period romance. It is that the movie, directed by British Ghanaian Amma Asante, makes room for the nuances of class and race prejudice experienced by Dido in a genre that is often as stiff and button-upped as its protagonists. Dido must navigate through the complicated rituals associated with her upper-class origins while always remaining cognizant of the negativity associated with her slave background. This is an England that still hasn't ended its part in slavery, something that becomes central to Belle's storyline as it is Lord Mansfield that may issue the ruling that will bring its end.
Asante's identification with Dido is obvious in the way she directs Mbatha-Raw to such a spectacular performance. One riveting moment occurs in silence when, after a long day of keeping up her facade of nonchalance, Dido sits in front of her mirror and starts to beat her chest and pull on her skin as if she wants to rip it off. The irony is that her white cousin Elizabeth finds herself envying the freedom Dido's inheritance has bestowed upon her, allowing her to be beholden to no man. More complex than it initially seems, Belle is a captivating story that is mostly shrouded in mystery for us across the pond. But Asante's frequent tendency to shift to POV shots grants Belle an immediacy not typically found in costume period pieces. Belle gives voice to women of color and Asante and Mbatha-Raw prove that they are worthy of being heard.