Review: ‘Belle’ quietly slips politics into the Jane Austen genre

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays an heiress of mixed race in 18th century London in the docudrama "Belle." Credit: Fox Searchlight
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays an heiress of mixed race in 18th century London in the docudrama “Belle.”
Credit: Fox Searchlight

Director: Amma Asante
Stars: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

Looked at the wrong way, “Belle” could be read as a devastating parody of costume dramas, not as a historical drama that subversively sneaks in an element alien to the genre. It certainly gets all the details right of Jane Austen cinema. Though it was shot on digital, it has the tasteful, warmly lit, locked-down shots that ogle uncomfortable clothing. People say things like, “Lord Mansfield would be most aggrieved,” and “Quite!” Will our heroine go with the shallow rich kid or the fastidious Mr. Darcy type whose manners at first drove her batty?

There’s one twist: Our heroine is Dido Elizabeth Belle (a winning Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a real-life heiress of mixed race who was installed by her father (Matthew Goode) into the tony family estate, run by his uncle, the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). Details on her life are scant, despite a new biography about to his shelves, but the film imagines her as being raised in a bubble and taught the proper life, even though she’s treated, even by her loved ones, like an exotic pet. Indeed, she’s not allowed to share the dinner table with guests, especially since they may blurt out things like, “I had no idea she was so black.”

Yet Dido’s skin color can’t allay the advances of the smirking scion (James Norton) of a full-on society racist (Miranda Richardson, reliably hammy). But she instead finds her heart melting over John Danvier (Sam Reid), a lowly but strapping priest’s son and fiery abolitionist who tussles with Mansfield over the Zong case, in which a ship drowned slaves in an attempt to collect insurance money. Danvier rocks her world, first with his rakish good looks and then by belatedly exposing her to the misery elsewhere in the world.

The frivolous life or progressive radicalism? Which side she’ll choose is as inevitable as whether the loving but stubborn Mansfield will cave to Danvier’s side. But that’s all part of the plan. Helmed by a black, female director (Amma Asante) and writer (Misan Sagay), it appropriates the language of frivolous costume dramas to sneak in passionate politics.

But it doesn’t simply add race to an otherwise whitewashed genre; it also stresses the feminism that goes into all female-driven costume dramas. Dido’s late father bequeathed her a fortune, meaning that unlike her relative and childhood friend Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), she doesn’t require a suitor to keep her moneyed. And yet the two women are still pitted against each other, for love is inextricably entwined with money and financial security. “Belle” never gets preachy, even if it’s never subtle about what it’s saying. In fact, its refusal to ditch the genre’s light trappings makes its growing politics even more daring. It just assumes that those into stammering courtship and tight corsets will be totally cool when things turn into a coolheaded “Amistad.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge.


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