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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

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.


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

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