In cinema of late, we have seen the mistreatment of black people depicted on screen in a series of powerful and accomplished feature films. From the likes of Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave, to Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom and The Butler, it’s a theme that is being explored triumphantly, raising awareness to a simply reprehensible set of events. Now, however, comes Amma Asante’s Belle, which is unique in that while we’re delving into the same circumstances, this time it is from a British perspective.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of an admiral, who is left to be raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). The revered judge reluctantly agrees – though as the young girl grows older, she soon becomes aware of her repressive upbringing, and takes an interest in politics when she meets the impassioned John Davinier (Sam Reid). With a hugely implicative court case ongoing, together they attempt to persuade Mansfield to put aside any prejudice and be instrumental in the potential abolition of British slavery.
It’s fascinating to delve into such raw, powerful themes, and dressed up (literally) in a traditionalist, costume drama environment; playing up lovingly to the conventionalities of the genre in spite of the unique narrative. Though it will undoubtedly help bring this tale to a broad audience who may not have explored such territory otherwise, as a result Asante can be accused of watering down the tale in favour of the somewhat superfluous romantic narrative that runs right through this piece.
However what elevates this production, is the stunning turn by lead performer Mbatha-Raw, who is a real star in the making. She has a graceful screen presence and the ability to display a range of sincere emotions without the need for words, in what is ultimately a subtle, nuanced character study of this young woman. It may not quite be of the standard of 12 Years a Slave, but this film remains important to see, as we seek in appreciating and understanding our own nation’s developments in this field.