“Embracing sentiment without going soft on substance, [Amma Asnate] hides her stronger purpose beneath a facade of gentility in a manner that would make Jane Austen smile. Bravo!”
I’m delighted to be writing this review of Belle, Amma Asante’s summer triumph, a film that resonated with many in the UK and abroad. So delighted was I that I took the liberty of doing a little shoot, a small one, to emulate a part of that newly embraced history. Can you guess where I would have fit in to it all? I hope you like the shots, but they are nothing on the film’s sweepingly cinematic beauty. The first time I went to see it, I made myself pay attention to every little detail, because I thought that I might struggle to catch the nuances that told the real story. I didn’t have to look very hard. This tale, based on true events, is completely, quite surprisingly uber-googlable, with numerous reviews, commentaries and histories whispered throughout the interweb. So I won’t delve into the details because, although the movie’s gracing period is nearing its end, I don’t want to spoil it for you when you do come to watch it on DVD, or a year from now on ITV – or wherever. What you should know, however, is that it is first and foremost a tale about ambiguity of position, a confusion that rests in the consciouness of bi-racial beauty, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsey of 1779 – who is brought to life by the equally enchanting Gugu Mbatha-Raw, for whom the film has been a long time coming. Her performance was a steal, although it would be utterly disrespectful to suggest that the woman was so accomplished in her art that it could have been a one-woman-show, it has to, at least, be hinted. So there. You’d be struck by the so-called “star-making work,” in which Mbatha-Raw spoke volumes “with her bright and searching gaze, in a film full of politely glazed barbarism…” This is according to the Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin. So taken was I with the 31-year-old actress’ portrayal of Belle that I would have named this post ‘Gaga for Gugu,’ had the title not already been used by many other stylishly imaginative writers and bloggers, so the one that got you here did just fine.
But there were other stars, namely seen in Tom Wilkinson’s Lord Mansfield and Miranda Richardson’s Lady Ashford whose sharp and, according to the actress, “practical” outlook on life kept us uncomfortably amused for a good part of the plot’s unfolding. It appears to be the general consensus among the literati that the part of John Divinier, played by a baritone Sam Reid, was under written. Yet I don’t know whether this has any bearing, as his performance was also stunning, particularly at the film’s denouement, in which his role was, in my humble opinion, crucial and pivotal. And, yes, he is “rather soft on the eyes,” as James Norton’s character Oliver Ashford so candidly put it – although about Belle! (That would have been a different movie entirely…) I thought that the beautiful Sarah Gadon’s Elizabeth Murray was terrifically played, you would really feel for her – not that she was a pity party. On the contrary, she brought a genuinely vivacious charm to the story and, at least from this rendition of Murray’s life, seemed to possess an endearing sort of sisterly compassion for her ‘unusual’ cousin.
Asante has said that she wanted the movie to be a hybrid of “the Jane Austen elements we know so well – the marriage market, the lives of girls growing up into society ladies – combined with a story about the end of slavery…” Indeed, the direction of the film allows it to tackle issues regarding race, class and gender, while at the same time having a coming-of-age theme, also being a legal drama and, and above all for all of you hopeless romantics, a love story. I’m echoing the words of Reid, who went on to describe Asante as a genius. This is not an alien sentiment, as the self-titled by-cultural directer has previously won a Bafta. Telegraph writer Collins seems to agree, as he closes his praise page with this:
“Cinema can never correct the past, but it can reshape our perception of it and Belle prompts us to wonder… why these stories have been so rarely told.”
So it would seem Asante hit the mark with her take on this remarkable story. I, for one, am glad she did, for without it who knows how many of us would have come to know this fascinating part of history?
Photography by Derwood Pamphilon