Saturday, October 11, 2014

"Belle" Presents a New Face

British costume dramas occupy their own familiar genre, one traditionally full of class and gender conflicts. However, its heroes and heroes have been overwhelmingly Caucasian, with the odd foreign prince or noble slave character appearing at the margins. "Belle" therefore immediately stands out from all the rest, because its titular heroine, Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), based on a real 18th century woman of the same name, is of mixed race with dark skin. The daughter of a Royal Navy officer, raised in the household of her uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), a prominent judge, Dido is an anomaly in British society. Her family is painfully aware of her status, and so Dido is kept hidden away until she is grown up, and the question of her future becomes unavoidable.

It's always wonderful to find a film that defies easy categorization. Clearly "Belle" has antecedents as a period romance and as an abolitionist narrative. The film takes place in 1779, in the waning days of the slave trade. However, Dido's search for love and acceptance requires directly confronting the issue of her race and color. The sisterly relationship between Dido and her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who Dido regularly measures herself against, is at least as vital to the film as the romantic relationship that develops between Dido and the young lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid) she falls in love with. And as a woman of means and a certain social standing, her relationship to the slave trade is very different from that of the black victims we usually see in abolition stories.

The first two thirds of "Belle" are excellent as it follows the gradual blossoming of its heroine into a self-confident young woman who takes control of her own life and destiny. It is especially good at establishing all the hurdles, great and small, that she faces in her life, from the well-meaning restrictions set by her own family to the naked disdain expressed by outsiders. Gugu Mbatha-Raw's performance as Dido is very appealing, and she has no trouble carrying the film despite only a short list of previous credits. She also has no shortage of help from the supporting cast, which is full reliable players - In addition to Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Matthew Goode, and Penelope Wilton all appear in smaller roles.

I'm sorry to say that the ending of "Belle" is very formulaic, much of it an obvious fabrication that plays up a lot inspirational, feel-good melodramatics so that the viewer can walk away with a happy ending. Long-ingrained prejudices seem to evaporate instantly, and social conventions are overturned willy nilly. It even has a courtroom scene that seems to have been plucked out of a different film altogether. Still, even the most tired and overplayed moments gain poignancy from the fact that we are seeing a person of color at the center of this story. Dido Belle is a unique character in cinema, whose very presence gives the film a weight and importance that is impossible to ignore.

There's a defining scene between Dido and Elizabeth where the two have a thinly veiled confrontation over their respective social disadvantages. The matter or Dido's skin color is never brought up, though it is clearly on both women's minds. The subject is too volatile to be addressed directly, even though the two are as close as sisters and Elizabeth doesn't think of Dido as her inferior. The fact that Dido can speak to Elizabeth as an equal is as rare and extraordinary as the fact that she actually takes the opportunity to do so. "Belle" would have been stronger if it had been subtler and resisted the urge to grandstand in the final act, but it does play many complicated moments like this just right.

This is the second film by Amma Asante, a Black British director who is quickly rising to prominence. Her ability to get strong performances from her actors and her choice of subject matter make her one to watch out for. Asante's next project looks to be a far more conventional thriller for Warner Brothers, but I hope that she keeps making films as unique and challenging and necessary as "Belle."

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