For Whom the Belle Tolls

The illegitimate, biracial daughter of a British navy admiral, Dido Elizabeth Belle, was born into complicated circumstances. In Belle, director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay take some liberties with what’s known about the real Belle, but strict accuracy isn’t the point of Asante’s lush, Jane Austenesque film, which belongs fully to Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). 

Growing up under the roof of her great-uncle, barrister Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), Belle becomes close with her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), and chafes at the limitations of her unusual position: She’s part of the family, except at formal dinners; a would-be suitor speaks of overlooking Belle’s parentage as if he thinks he’s saying something kind. The world we’ve seen in countless period films is different through Belle’s eyes; with her in the foreground, we can’t choose to ignore the discrimination on display in a restrictive, racist society. Mbatha-Raw gives Belle a thoughtful, tense, politely wary presence; she holds herself carefully, waiting for the inevitable moment when someone remarks on her parentage, her skin, her position.

Threaded neatly through the film is Lord Mansfield’s impending decision on the Zong case, an ugly battle involving the owners of a slave ship and their insurers, who wouldn’t pay up when the owners claimed they were forced to drown their “cargo” due to water shortages.  The case is a catalyst for Belle’s growing understanding of the inequality of her world — and the thing that brings her closer to impassioned legal assistant Tom Davinier (Sam Reid). 

While the country waits for Lord Mansfield’s legal judgment, Belle also anxiously awaits the result of a seemingly simple thing she dreaded: Lord Mansfield had her and Elizabeth sit for a portrait. Belle has spent enough time looking at the paintings in her adopted father’s house, in which people of color are always subservient, gazing worshipfully at towering white men. 

But her image looks nothing like that. The real portrait of Belle and Elizabeth was key in the genesis of Belle, so it’s fitting that within the film, the image serves as a quietly brilliant example of the power of representation in art. What is just a pretty decoration to the privileged is, to the oppressed, a symbol of their place in society — or at home. When Belle sees her portrait for the first time, the scene is every bit as powerful as the moment Lord Mansfield delivers his verdict on the Zong case. Romantic, elegant and triumphant, Belle is as deft an exploration of the intersection of race, class and gender as I’ve seen on any kind of screen.

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