‘Belle’ focuses on the everyday realities of racial inequality
By Michael Nordine 04/28/2014
The enduring appeal of period dramas lies partially in the contrast between the vibrant costumes and internalized emotions. The surface is at once vibrant and sedate, creating a space between what’s said and what’s meant that allows for romantic yearning, passive aggression, and all manner of other emotions to be conveyed with a sly artfulness that candor can’t quite replicate. Set in 1769 and featuring no shortage of ornate getups, “Belle” tells of a girl born to a black mother and white father who ends up being raised by the latter’s family — her mother has died and her father is in the navy. Belle (or Dido, as they call her) is loved by her great-aunt (Emily Watson) and -uncle (Tom Wilkinson) but kept from the public eye lest rumor and scandal erupt — an especially high concern given his role as England’s most important judge, who just happens to be deliberating on a case involving the slave trade.
Amma Asante’s film is inspired by an actual painting of Dido and, so far as one can tell, fairly historically accurate. More importantly, it’s a surprisingly involving chamber drama that knows its strengths and plays to them. “Belle” may seem a would-be prestige picture without the heft of similar projects like “12 Years a Slave” or “Lincoln,” but it’s one whose whole is more than the sum of its shopworn parts. Assante delves into several overlapping relationships — suitor and debutante, adoptive father and daughter, lord of the manor and visiting clergyman — with a keen eye for the power dynamics inherent in each. Marriage isn’t so much a romantic bond as a transaction between two families, and the master-apprentice relationship is far from an even exchange.
Small moments shine through in each of these relationships, momentarily disrupting the balance in power and pointing toward an eventual sea change. “Belle” is set on the cusp of a landmark ruling, but it’s more concerned with human moments than grand gestures. Its ideas about race and gender inequity are nothing new onscreen or off, but they are absorbingly rendered. Gugu Mbatha-Raw makes Belle a sympathetic character first, historical vessel second, a through-line in Assante’s film that makes its occasional ham-handedness much more palatable.