I am addicted to British costume dramas. My earliest memory of television is of watching a rerun of the original Poldark when I was in England one Christmas when I was three or four years old (a show I still love, despite the dreadful costumes and occasionally poor acting). I usually watch a film in the cinema or on television before deciding to spend money on it, but I missed Belle when it was showing; when I found it in Costco for $10 I went ahead and bought it, thinking it couldn’t be too bad, given its cast.
Oh was I ever glad I did. It’s one of my go-to films for those evenings when I’m stressed or frustrated or depressed: simultaneously sumptuous eye-candy and a celebration of one of the tiny steps British society made towards equality despite the rigidity of prevailing social rules regarding race and class at the time. It’s also a reminder that there were people writing and arguing in support of equal rights—although they wouldn’t have called it that—when the slave trade was at its most lucrative, even though their voices would continue to be drowned out by the preference for the status quo, mercantile interests, and the prevailing social bigotry for roughly two hundred years to come. (Some of the writings of Thomas Day, 1748–1789, are interesting in this regard, if you’re looking for further reading—Dido is reading one of his works in one scene in the film.)
Much of the story is heavily fictionalized, partly for the sake of telling a compelling story, but mostly, I think, because there is so little documentation of Dido Belle’s life aside from who her parents were, her position at Kenwood House, her great-uncle’s love for her, and her marriage to John Davinier. She actually married Davinier after her uncle’s death; whether they were in love is anyone’s guess, but I’d like to think that at least he must have loved her, to be willing to place principle over social prejudice, rather than just for the sake of her money (I’m not sure if her inheritance was as grand as is stated in the film, but she did get enough for a comfortable life). She had more to do with the running of the estate than is really portrayed in the film, John Davinier was not actually a law student, and the Ashford brothers are an invention for the story.
It’s still a great story, and so much better in almost every way than a number of the other films that got more attention that year. I like the balance Misan Sagay’s screenplay strikes between history, politics, and personal relationships–there is little in the way of Oscar-bait speeches because the issues the film deals with are framed not solely in terms of the significant historical event the characters are involved in (the Zong lawsuit), but in how the characters relate to and perceive one another. Most of the reviews I’ve come across, before and since, are good, and yet the film seemed vanish from the cinemas shortly after opening, and attracted only a small audience (in the U.S., at least). Gugu Mbatha-Raw is becoming one of my favourite actresses; even in her small role in the deliciously ridiculous Lost in Austen she steals every scene she appears in, and she’s got a number of big films coming out this year and the next. Sam Reid is also perfect for his role, and finally getting more exposure in other roles—he should have been the new Poldark, I thought, but hey ho. Everyone in it turns in a solid performance, even down to cousin Elizabeth, irritating character though she is. Amma Asante, the director, is also one to watch, I think—she has a new film coming out this year, A United Kingdom, and I can’t wait.