I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the traditional period drama so beloved of English filmmakers. There’s something peculiarly retrogressive about that heady blend of overdressed men and women walking into, out of and around grandly decorated rooms in vast mansions, aristocratic seats of wealth and power, while talking about politics (if the character is a man) or matches that bring in £10,000 a year (for the ladies). And yet I’ve always been rather drawn to these overprivileged lives, with their finery and their petty concerns. At a certain level, Belle is no different: it has heritage sets, vast homes filled with art and beautiful furniture, and overdressed men and women entering and leaving its overdressed rooms. Yet its title character is one who would usually be doubly excluded from such a milieu, being a black woman. Her position is neatly signalled by repeated shots of her looking at paintings around the house which show black people subservient to their white masters, gazing adoringly upwards from prone positions in the corners of the canvases. The title character of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has a quite different, and quite unusual, position in society, for her parentage to a British Navy Captain allows her to be raised within this overprivileged world and through the independent wealth this affords her can break traditionally gendered restraints to get involved directly in the political arguments of the time. These, of course, revolved primarily around slavery and its importance to the interests of the British Empire, and in this respect it’s particularly helpful that Dido Belle’s surrogate father is the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is working on a case involving the human rights of slaves killed by a slave trader. This case (known as the Zong massacre after the ship involved), along with another he later worked on (Somersett’s Case) and which is sort of elided into it here, are small but crucial steps on the path towards the abolition of slavery and the film implies that his relationship with the mixed-race Dido is key to his decision. All of this is, on the level of historical record, fairly unclear — there is little documentary evidence of Belle’s life aside from a remarkable painting of her with her (white) cousin Elizabeth — but as a film, it’s all very nicely staged and enjoyably acted by a set of excellent thespians with much experience at this sort of thing.
Director Amma Asante; Writer Misan Sagay; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 27 June 2014.