Dir. Amma Asante. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon
When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”Esther 4:12-14, NIV
I couldn’t stop thinking about this story from the Old Testament during the second half of Belle. The situation is obviously rather different—Dido (Mbatha-Raw) is a grand-niece to a mere judge, Murray (Tom Wilkinson), rather than one of the many wives of the king—but the thrust of it is not so far away. The religious perspective on the story of Esther is that God puts people in places to do his will. The secular perspective on the story is that people with the cognizance to do right and the position to exert it have a responsibility to do so. In either case, Dido does just that in Belle. As the mixed daughter of a British nobleman and military officer, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and an unseen Black slave from the Caribbean, fostered with another grand-niece of similar age, Elizabeth (Gadon), she has grown up with significant privilege even compared to other Englishwomen. She has learning, literacy, etiquette. She also has the intelligence to appreciate the court cases that her guardian is ruling on. Most importantly, she is a person of color in a country with very few such people, and the only person of color she is likely to see in any of the fine country homes and village fetes that people of her position frequent. From that secular point of view, perhaps the 21st Century point of view, Dido has the ability to do right and takes that opportunity to do so despite the threat of personal consequences. I find that explanation compelling, but it doesn’t quite cover what makes this film feel so special. It is a great coincidence in the course of the movie that Dido should be living in her great-uncle’s home, before anyone could have married her (though that’s not really in the plans for her!), while he is still practicing law, and as ever, the daughter of a slave. It is almost more like a miracle than a coincidence: “for such a time as this.”
Belle is not a religious film. For example, no one would confuse it with Amazing Grace, the 2006 Michael Apted film which also deals with the British slave trade, albeit with the presence of John Newton doing a lot of work. Even 1776, about a convention of Deists trying to pass a resolution, has more reference to God. All the same, it is a film which a certain kind of reader might interpret as the human ability to meet and know the will of God. Go to church during Advent and the minister will, doubtless, give some sermon in which s/he discusses that God sends his son in the most unlikely way, without nobility, without privilege, as a baby whose needs must be cared for and who spent his first night in a feeding trough. That this baby becomes an itinerant, a carpenter surrounded by fisherman, and who is executed in humiliating fashion by a foreign power is the substance of many a Lenten homily. But we are to believe that God works through those whom it would be least expected. A shepherd boy turned king, David. A farmer turned miraculous prophet, Elisha. The sinful woman of Luke 7 who washed Jesus’s hair with her feet and then anointed them in perfume, or even the centurion early in that chapter whose faith heals his servant. A persecutor of the early Church turned its greatest evangelist, Saul. A Black woman in 18th Century England who pressured her nearest family to do the right thing, Dido.
Belle, at least to me if not to most people, is about a woman who discovers the will of God and sets out to fulfill it as far as she is able. She cannot go into her uncle’s courtroom and argue, nor can she sneak into the homes of the slavers and take eyes for eyes. But she can have a firm moral center, bear that under the pressure of her society, and then speak to the Earl of Mansfield in ways that she knows will be meaningful to him. In the film, it’s the portrait of Dido with Elizabeth where both are prominent and neither is subservient, an obvious rarity for paintings including white people and people of color, that gives Murray a way to rule well on the case, which he does. The slavers who claim insurance money for the slaves they tossed overboard were committing fraud, he finds, and England comes one step closer to eradicating its participation in slave trading. For much of the movie, John Davinier (Reid) cannot turn Murray even though he likes this purist law student he’s taken on. John can only be morally circumspect, or ethically correct, or even legally convincing. But Belle can change Murray’s heart, because she has come to that position for such a time as this.
Whether or not that implication of divine providence—probably the phrase that these people, living less than a decade after those rebellious Yanks of 1776 declared independence, would have recognized—is appealing to you is likely the difference between deciding this movie is wonderful and deciding this movie is staid. There’s definitely a predictable aspect in the setting of the film; I’d forgive anyone whose eyes glaze over when they see yet another set of dresses and red uniforms and wigs and all that stuff. Nor does the film exert a lot of energy to look different or move differently; it is not making its points through the camera. On the whole, I think that making a conventional film is a successful strategy. For one thing, there is a fine line between footling around with anachronism or more adventurous camera movement and making Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette is an outstanding picture, but it’s also not at all thrusting in the same direction that Belle thrusts in. For another, the film already has the piece which makes it fundamentally different than any other movie set in this time and place: Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
This film puts its story at the service of beautiful unwed young women with big hair and bigger dresses in the biggest rooms casting about for potential husbands, and it trends in that direction a long time. And if it were merely about Elizabeth, then I would grant that it would be a fairly straightforward story. A young woman helps herself fall for a man who could guarantee her future, James Ashford (Tom Felton), even though the man in question is beneath her personally even if he’s above her socially. If Dido were white but otherwise identical to herself in all other aspects, then her courtship with James’s brother Oliver (James Norton) would be rote as well. A man beneath her socially might be using her to gain status and income which he would bear as soon as he married her, thus making her basically useless to him. And (I know, hold on) the presence of a hunky idealist with no fortune or title in John who complicates Dido’s feelings about a possible marriage while also wounding her vanity along the way, would feel perhaps most dull and cliched of all. I’ll grant all of that, but none of that adequately appreciates the premise of this film, coming rather nearer to “if my ox had testicles it would be a bull” territory. It is unique because of Belle’s race, and it is unique because Gugu Mbatha-Raw is in the lead role. That it centers a Black woman in a time where Black women were emphatically decentered is a creative choice that feels as shocking as the sound design of the fights in Raging Bull or the camera pulling from young Charles Foster Kane in the snow to the interior of the home where his fate is being decided.
If the story of this film is, for two-thirds of its length, a little obvious, then it gains strength from the ways in which it puts a bony elbow into the ribs of that plainness. Belle’s unique background speaks for itself, but there’s also a scene of sexual assault in the film which is extremely rare in a film rated PG. In one sequence, James proves just how bad an egg he is when he gropes his prospective sister-in-law, outdoors and in the range of others’ eyes, as a way to express his anger with her. It is sexual assault not for the reasons that cis men tend to believe sexual assault happens—lust, pleasure, impatience—but for the reasons that women know sexual assault happens—to establish dominance, to inculcate fear. Think of all your favorite Austen adaptations, and think of how frightened and anxious we are meant to feel for the ladies seduced by Wickham or Willoughby. Then consider that Belle shows us a non-consensual sexual incident (where the stuff with the W-men is presumably consensual), and, just to emphasize, shows us that incident rather than showing people in a tizzy. Watch enough movies and maybe you get a little inured to moments of shock value, but reader, I gasped at that shot where Felton’s hands begin to roughly mold Mbatha-Raw’s body.