Hanging at Scone Palace in Scotland, there is a painting unlike any other from its time. Whereas most from the 18th century would depict people of colour always lower in rank than the white subject of the painting, this depicts two women of the same social standing, one of whom is of colour.
Not only are they of the same standing but the impression is giving that it is in fact the white lady who is beneath the other, reaching out her hand to touch her when usually it is the other way around.
This painting is in fact of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, the subjects of former Grange Hill director Amma Asante’s latest work, Belle.
Masquerading as a costume drama, the film is steeped in the politics of race, gender and class, and it’s these themes that lift Belle above other Jane Austen-type affairs.
An illegitimate child to an Admiral and African slave, Belle is raised by her great uncle, the Earl of Mansfield. With plenty of inherited money and her entitlement bound in law, she becomes a unique and remarkable case; a gentlewomen not required to marry into a rich family nor endure a life of slavery.
Therefore the film isn’t solely about the divisions between race but more about a woman fighting for her voice to be heard and for a change in the laws concerning slavery.
There’s still plenty of romance in the form of love interest John Davinier who opens Dido’s eyes to the world around her, but the film works best when dealing with the bigger picture.
The central performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a strong and memorable one, but Tom Wilkinson is the one who truly shines. His performance as Lord Mansfield, torn between his respect for the law and his peronal feelings for Dido, is naunced and fantastic to watch.
Whilst the directing, the acting and story is all above board, I still can’t claim to have been blown away by Belle. Worth seeing for its fascinating story alone, it’s a well constructed drama that has nothing particularly wrong with it but nothing very special about it either.