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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Belle movie review: untold stories

Belle green light

Wonderful true story about a mixed-race woman raised in an aristocratic British family in the late 18th century; like the best Jane Austen romance with an angry social conscience.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m hungry for stories about women

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Warning: I am about to get sweary about a genteel romantic costume drama.

To everyone who has ever said or believed that white men built the world on their own and bestowed civilization on the rest of us? Fuck you. To anyone who has ever said or believed that the stories of women and everyone not-white haven’t been told because they’re not worth telling because, obvs, they did nothing significant? Fuck you.

That the stories of women and nonwhite people — and nonwhite women! — have been erased from the history books does not mean they weren’t present and didn’t have an impact that affects us to this day. That everyone who wasn’t male and white was deliberately shuffled off to the side and sometimes kept ignorant and whose voices weren’t heeded doesn’t mean they didn’t do everything they could be heard, either deliberately or simply by sheer dint of being alive. That we don’t know their stories is nothing but proof of the insidious near-completeness of the cultural crime of denying them their truth.

But here is Belle to remedy one such injustice. It is the true story of perhaps the only mixed-race woman to move in aristocratic society of Georgian England, Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of Royal Navy captain Sir John Lindsay and an African slave (about whom little is know beyond her name, Maria Belle). The first of the many ways in which I adore this movie is the opening scene, in which young Dido (Lauren Julien-Box), maybe eight years old or so, is swooped away from the rathole in which she is living by her father (Matthew Goode: Leap Year, A Single Man), suddenly come to rescue her: “I am here to take you to a good life,” he tells her with tender kindness so sweet it just about made my heart burst. He has no shame in his daughter — as any “right-thinking” Englishman would have — which is awesome. But even better: This is a prince-and-pauper story… for a girl! (Except without anyone getting stuck in the poorhouse.) It’s a chick Oliver Twist! These are fantasy wish-fulfillment genres that have been denied to women. (No, Disney princesses don’t count. They’re not real or in any way plausibly connected to the real world. That matters.)

Lindsay brings Dido to live in a big house near London — which is today actually in London: Kenwood House in Hampstead, which is open to the public — with her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson: The Lone Ranger, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), who in about five seconds goes from “Oh my god, she’s like totally black!” to “I like you, you’re a clever little girl, that’s cool.” His wife, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson: The Book Thief, Anna Karenina), takes slightly longer to come around, but Dido is basically completely magnificent is all ways — while still being a realistic human being, of course — and so wins everyone over, including her cousin, Elizabeth, another ward of the Mansfields. Soon, Dido (now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw [Odd Thomas, Larry Crowne], who is so amazing I want to eat her up) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Cosmopolis ) are all grown up and best friends and about to embark on the only 18th-century job open to an upper-class woman: finding a husband.

On one powerfully entertaining level, Belle is a Jane Austen novel come to life, with a few extra ironic twists. Dido becomes an heiress — her father leaves her an income of £2,000 a year, an absolute fortune, when he dies at sea, as officers in His Majesty’s Navy were wont to do — while Elizabeth is one of the impoverished aristocracy, which lends a crazy flip-flop to their social positions as they are out and about meeting potential suitors: Dido is both pariah and desirable at the same time… but so is Elizabeth, for different reasons. Some of this (like Dido’s inheritance) may have been invented by screenwriter Misan Sagay; lots of details about the real Dido Belle’s life have been lost to history. But invention is okay! The fact that even snippets of Dido Belle’s story survived at all are a testament to the impact that she had.

Like this kind of impact: What is indisputably true is that Lord Mansfield was a working aristocrat. He was Lord Chief Justice, the highest judge in the land, and he most definitely made abolition-friendly judgments on cases — at a time when slavery was still legal in England — during the time after Dido came to live with him. Because that’s what happens! You stop seeing the Other as Other and start seeing them as smart, funny, warm, kind, complicated people, and your perception shifts.

And the world changes. Sometimes just for you, sometimes in major ways that change the course of history.

This is important, and key to the fuck-yous I doled out above: Slavery as a legal thing in England came to an end in part because of the influence that Dido Belle had over her great-uncle — not just as a presence in his life but because she voiced opinions about what was going on around her — who loved her and couldn’t conceive of seeing her as property, even if “propriety” sometimes forced him to not treat her quite the same as he did Elizabeth. (Dido couldn’t dine with the family, for instance, but she could join them in the drawing room after. *grrrr*)

So this is Jane Austen with extra irony and and a whopping dollop of larger social conscience, and an angry one at that. Dido dithers for a while between a handsome aristocrat who may be after her for her money but who seems nice anyway (James Norton: Rush, Doctor Who) even if his brother is Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton [In Secret, Rise of the Planet of the Apes], and yeah, his character is basically a Georgian Malfoy), and a handsome but poor wannabe lawyer (Sam Reid: The Railway Man, Anonymous) who is passionate about abolition and seems to truly love her for herself, and who genuinely makes Dido weak in the knees, and rightfully so *yowza.* Meanwhile, the movie is asking us to consider all manner of social issues, from adoptive father figures who love their should-be outcast relations anyway to the notion that perhaps Dido’s plight wasn’t all that far removed from that of all women — even the rich and “rich” white ones — in her world, in that they were seen as the property of men and had little prospect of loving whom they wished. Which clearly isn’t intended to diminish the horrors of slavery and the bigotry it engendered, but simply to say: Crap, rich white men and their love of money have screwed all the rest of us so hard.

Huge kudos to director Amma Asante for making Belle as purely diverting as it is, even as it is righting historical wrongs and asking subversive questions. I loved it in about a hundred different ways, and it’s important in at least that many ways. Unless there are suddenly a dozen more mainstream movies with black women protagonists — or, hell, women protagonists of any color — Belle is going to be one of the movies of the year for 2014.


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Belle (2014)
US/Can release: May 02 2014
UK/Ire release: Jun 13 2014

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated TTH (take that, “history”)
MPAA: rated PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images
BBFC: rated 12A (brief sexual assault, discrimination theme)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Oracle Mun

    Oh, I was hoping this movie would be good. This sounds excellent.

  • Matt Clayton

    I actually saw a FXM promo for this, actually looks good. We got the movie at our theater today, see if I can’t check it out. It’s even more gratifying that a woman of color has directed this. It’s far too often that female-centric movies have been directed by men.

  • The screenwriter is also a woman of color!

  • RogerBW

    As far as I can see, there’s no evidence that this particular black woman said any of this stuff, but there were black people and there were women saying it at the time. Too much simplification and compression? Maybe; it’s not as historical as it might have been. But that may be a matter of hitting the balance point between accuracy and a simple story that people will pay to go and see.

  • Said any of what stuff? (I don’t think I’ve quoted the character in the film at all.) The real Belle was educated, she worked with her uncle doing things like taking dictation (we know she wrote, or at least transcribed, some of his professional letters). It would be a stretch to imagine that she did NOT express any opinions about his work to him.

    MINOR SPOILER

    The biggest invention for the film seems to be around John Davinier, the man she eventually marries who, in the film, is the poor law clerk/wannabe lawyer (and he’s also English.) The real Davinier (according to Wikipedia) was a Frenchman living in London and worked as a gentleman’s steward. But that seems a reasonable fudging of the truth for dramatic purposes.

  • RogerBW

    I was thinking of the speech she’s given about having been “blessed with freedom twice over — as a negro and as a woman”. There’s no evidence that she had radical opinions, but other people at the time certainly did and it’s possible that she did too.

  • Bluejay

    In interviews, the filmmakers have been pretty upfront about having to fill in a lot of lacunae in Belle’s life, since beyond the broad outlines not much is known about her or her opinions. But (as we all seem to agree) it’s not unlikely that she held such opinions, and I found the film’s creative filling in of the spaces to be intelligent on the whole.

  • Bluejay

    To anyone who has ever said or believed that the stories of women and everyone not-white haven’t been told because they’re not worth telling because, obvs, they did nothing significant

    One of the many things I liked about this film is how it comments on this perception by literally looking at paintings of white and non-white people and how their gazes, stances, and places in the composition showed what the artist (and society) thought of their relative power, status, individuality, and worth. It’s a comment on the visual media of Belle’s time as much as it’s a corrective to the visual media of ours.

  • There’s no evidence for anything she may or may not have thought. But it’s almost impossible for her to have been unaware of her odd social situation.

  • Yes, all the stuff with the paintings is amazing, including the revelation of the painting she and her sister-cousin sat for.

  • Geoffrey Hastwell

    Interesting to note critic Nigel Andrews has reservations about a film ‘wearing its heart on its sleeve’. I’m inferring that he considers ‘Belle’ overdoes the ‘compassion/preaching’ aspects and underdoes the hard-hitting ‘in your face’ drama he might prefer. (I may be over-inferring, so apologies if this is the case, Mr Andrews!)
    However, I feel that he’s wrong, and on a number of levels.
    First: Does a Jane Austen costume-drama necessarily obviate all social criticism and ‘meat’? In my view, no
    Second: If a film (or any creative offering ) is able to employ ‘conventional’ devices to subtly (yes, I said that) state and illustrate its thesis, where is the problem?
    Thirdly: ‘Belle ‘ is not factually accurate. I simply say, firmly – so what? (Check E. Hemingway’s observation that novelists are great liars, but can convey far deeper truths than any journalist/historian….! Film-makers might well be similarly assessed.)
    Thanks for your (‘heart on sleeve’!!) review, Ms Johanson

  • I don’t see how there’s anything necessarily wrong with a story wearing its heart on its sleeve.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Given the many times history has been distorted by American and British movies and given the way Black history has been especially prone to such cinematic distortion, a concern for historical accuracy is hardly the worst failing that a person reviewing this movie could have.

  • Tonio Kruger

    In other words, if it’s good enough for Iago…

  • Bluejay

    In this case, however, the film’s inventions enable it to do the opposite: UNdistort the mainstream histories that minimize and ignore the experiences and perspectives of nonwhite, nonmale people.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I am all for that if it’s actually true and if I could afford to see a first-run movie right now, this would probably be at the top of my must-see list.

    However, the fact we are living in the year 2014 and yet still treating films like this as if they are novelties makes me want to keep my fingers crossed.

    Please consider me cautiously optimistic. It’s not like I want to be a cynic about movies like this.

  • Bluejay

    However, the fact we are living in the year 2014 and yet still treating films like this as if they are novelties makes me want to keep my fingers crossed.

    Well, they ARE still novelties, like it or not. If we want these novelties to become commonplace, then we should support these novelties to let filmmakers know that we want more of them.

  • Sean_C

    The movie’s relation to real history is fairly loose, but I’m fine with that (Braveheart is complete nonsense, historically speaking, but it’s tons of fun). I do wonder, though, given Asante and co.’s willingness to disregard a lot of things (Elizabeth and Dido’s relative financial status, most notably, which much of the movie’s arc depends on) in the service of story, why they didn’t just move Somerset v. Stewart (a case which doesn’t seem to exist in this movie’s reality, otherwise you would thinks someone would have mentioned it) forward a decade or so. That was Mansfield’s epochal decision, the one that really made a statement about slavery and was cited by pretty much every anti-slavery argument for the next century. The Zong case was an insurance fraud matter and (as the movie, weirdly, depicts) ultimately came down to a technicality, not a true matter of principle, and it seems a poor fit for the point the movie is trying to make.

  • Actually, I think the Zong decision — as depicted here — was Manfield’s way of taking baby steps. To those who didn’t want to see nonwhite people as people, they could call it a matter of legal technicality. But we see that for Mansfield, it really was about a principal.

  • JenniferW

    “at a time when slavery was still legal in England”

    Slavery was never legal in England. It was never legal via Parliamentary law, and Somerset vs. Stewart ruled that it wasn’t legal by common law, either.

    It was legal in British colonies, but not actually in England. There were slaves (comparatively few) in the country, but it was never actually legal.

  • Hair-splitting and semantics. British companies were engaged in the slave trade. There were slaves in England, as you note. Ask those slaves whether they weren’t *actually* slaves.

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