By Arturo R. García
It’s only fitting that director Amma Assante’s Belle, a movie that culminates in a court, makes its own case crisply, and clearly. There’s a sense of some romanticizing, mind, but even that is based on hard evidence: the real Dido Elizabeth Belle did have a happy life.
So, admirably, Assante and writer Misan Sagay don’t try to inject pathos where it’s not necessary. Nor do they overplay their somewhat stacked cast, instead keeping Gugu Mbatha-Raw at the center, which she ably holds up. Because her story — at least, this story — positions her at the intersection of her own nascent questioning of her place in the world and her mentor’s role in shaping its future.
The story wastes no time showing us how the titular character (referred to by her first name, Dido) is thrust into, literally, a white man’s world. While the intentions and affection of her father, Sir John (Matthew Goode) are sincere, the fact remains that her mother’s death leaves her — and, more crucially, her experiences and insights — unable to help her as she’s placed in the care of, first and foremost, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson).
And so, what starts as protection for the child becomes part of an increasing set of restrictions: “How may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants and too low to dine with my family?” the adult Dido asks his Lordship early on, a question that doubles as the starting point for her burgeoning quest for self-realization.
For Mansfield, the country’s Lord Chief Justice, the question couldn’t come at a more problematic time: he’s been called upon to rule on the case of the infamous Zong massacre, a 1781 atrocity in which 142 slaves were thrown to the sea, and their death,
by the crew of the ship taking them from Africa to England. The ship’s owners then attempted to cash in on their insurance policy for the slaves, arguing that their lives were worth no more than 30 pounds a head. And the company wanted its cut.
Dido’s interest in the case is piqued by Mansfield’s budding new protege, John Davinier (Sam Reid). History Spoiler: In real life, Dido Belle did marry a man named John Davinier after Mansfield died. But it doesn’t appear like the actual Davinier followed Mansfield into the courts as a vocation.
So Reid’s job, which he takes with the right amount of proto-liberal gusto, is to serve as the sounding board for Mbatha-Raw’s Dido as she continues to reconcile the privilege her bloodline gives her with the prejudice it generates from others. “I have been blessed with freedom twice over,” Dido tells John, alluding to the inheritance that spares her the financial worry of finding a husband. “As a Negro and as a woman.”
It’s to the film’s credit that this conflict emerges so subtly as the film’s real triangle; it’s a coming-of-age story that visits “traditional” Victorian dating tropes but, because of Dido’s situation, can afford not to center exclusively around them. Likewise, it’s a story about slavery, in part, but not a slavery movie. We see Dido finding her own way toward the more inclusive world this Davinier symbolizes.
At the same time, Dido begins to separate herself from Mansfield and the paternalistic world that probably fancied itself as protective as he is, and one that even he must admit, personally and in ruling against the Zong’s owners’ insurance claims, is drawing closer to the end. At least as played by Wilkinson; a new biography, however, places the real Mansfield closer to what we could call center-right today:
When the film does show Dido straining against her society’s mores, it takes care not to do so in isolation. Even if her cousin/companion Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) is jealous that she gets more attention in the courting scene, she’s also aghast that the family won’t let her “go out” into it.
Although he was fond of Dido Belle and always fair to her, there is no evidence that she influenced his views. In fact, the judge’s famous ruling in the case that later helped to dismantle slavery was the result of his slow acknowledgement that slaves had rights in law.
“The film is right to suggest Mansfield is closely associated with the cause, but he did not want to bring down the slave owners in America, or even to end slavery,” Poser said.
“He did, however, eventually rule that the practice was so suspect it would have to be set down in deliberate legislation if it was to continue, rather than simply being supported by common law and precedent.”
Similarly, Elizabeth is nothing but happy that Mansfield commissions a painter to show them side-by-side for the portrait that inspired Assante to make the film. But there is a quiet moment where it’s the family servant, Mabel (Bethan Mary-James) who helps Belle figure out how to better take care of her hair. There’s a smile of community between Mabel and Belle, with Elizabeth watching from the background, quizzical but not angry at watching “the help” provide something to Belle that she’s not able to.
Fans scoring this alongside other Victorian films should come away satisfied by Belle, which ably utilizes Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton and Tom Felton (still capably sneering after all those Harry Potter years) to show the machinations surrounding Belle and Elizabeth, buoyed by Anushia Nieradzik’s costuming. But the film not only represents a big moment for women of color this year — a Black director, screenwriter and star in a period film that finds a way to inject a new take into some old, but still necessary conversations. Quite the picture, indeed.