Austin meets Amistad in a superior costume drama
Belle is this year’s second film about race and slavery. The first, the Best Picture winning 12 Years a Slave, was an unremittingly violent study of life on a Louisiana cotton plantation. Belle by contrast is an apparently gentle Jane Austen pastiche overflowing with baronets and bonnets.
Given this comparison you expect Belle to wind up looking rather trivial or perhaps even objectionable. In fact, while Belle is not a masterpiece like 12 Years, it serves as a pleasing and insightful compliment to its Oscar winning thematic brethren.
While it might appear a strange concept to make a Georgian Costume Drama about slavery, it actually recalls a long running academic debate. The celebrated Palestinian-American literary theorist Edward Said argued that Austen’s Mansfield Park was greatly influenced by being set in a nation at the heart of an empire. So for example, he notes characters who derive their livelihood from holdings in Antigua. While Said’s theory is controversial, the idea of seeing how British High Society is entangled with empire is an intriguing one, and Belle runs with it.
Like Mansfield Park it is the story of a young woman sent to live on her Uncle and Aunt’s estate. However, this one is based on real characters and events. In this case that woman is Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw – who Dr Who fans might recognise as Martha’s sister who almost got eaten by Mark Gatiss) the daughter of a white officer in the Royal Navy and a free slave. Her uncle played by Tom Wilkinson is the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield. The story follows both Dido’s difficulties living as a woman of colour in a racist society and how her life is affected by a seminal slavery case Lord Mansfield is judging.
This remarkable (and real) historical co-incidence is fleshed out into an engaging story. It’s delivered with through some compelling performances and it retains some nice Austinesque flairs: “Sir!!! You’re manners are as none-existent as your brother’s fortune!!!”
It’s also rather insightful about how different hierarchies interact , what is sometimes called intersectionality. Dido is trapped in a kind of limbo. Elevated by her wealth, class and lineage but burdened by her race, such that it is, for example, not considered proper for her to eat with either her family or their servants.
And it can’t easily be dismissed as being soft. It’s a much gentler watch than 12 years but the horror of slavery is still pretty clear. The central court case turns on the events of the Zong Massacre in which 142 enslaved Africans were thrown overboard and drowned by their captors during their passage across the Atlantic. The horror of this event was made even worse by the venal motive for it; the crew hoped to claim insurance money for the loss of their “cargo.” While this happens off camera, it is actually a greater atrocity than any of the lynchings, beatings and rapes depicted in 12 years. Belle also points on occasion to the vulnerability of black women to sexual violence. It may not have 12 Years’ overt brutality but the darkness is there.
Despite all this it’s not a perfect film. For most of its length it avoids becoming schmaltzy but does sometimes tip over into that direction. This matter is not helped by an awful violin heavy soundtrack which becomes intrusively loud at key moments. Oh and if you know Oxford, you’ll spend much of the film’s second half thinking things like: “that’s the Sheldonian not the Royal Courts of Justice!”
Verdict: 7/10 – it has its flaws but it’s a clever use of an apparently comfortable genre to explore a dark part of our history