Before she was playing a troubled rising pop star in the very positively reviewed Beyond the Lights, which I can’t wait to see, Gugu Mbatha-Raw was in another century altogether, playing a real life heroine in period piece Belle, an unexpected hit earlier this year.
Mbatha-Raw beautifully plays Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, a woman in 18th century Britain who, when her mother dies, is taken by her Navy officer father, John Lindsay (Matthew Goode, in a very small role), to live with his uncle William Murray, the Lord Chief Justice (Tom Wilkinson), aunt Lady Elizabeth Mansfield (Emily Watson), and Belle’s cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Her father demands that Belle is given the same privileges that anyone with her bloodline would be, and so, Belle lives a life shielded away from the injustice her race is saddled with until the time comes for Elizabeth to find a husband, when she realises the full extent of the contradictions in her life so far, where, if not for her bloodline, she would be mistreated because of her appearance. Angered by the inhumanity that has manifested itself in the famous Zong insurance case (now known as the Zong massacre) that her grand-uncle is responsible for ruling the verdict on, Belle works with his apprentice, to (and there’s no other way to put this) change the course of history.
Benefiting from the hindsight perspective inherent in the tale, Belle is a pat-on-the-back, socially conscious drama that also shares a great amount with many a period costume romance. It’s an interesting balance, and one that could have been handled much more clumsily than director Amma Asante does, finding 21st century relevance in its observation of still present social mores, which, combined with its popular romantic backdrop, is probably why it succeeded with audiences. It’s a fascinating story, and its surprising that a film hasn’t been made before now; however, because of how unconventional it is, I found myself frequently wishing that it wasn’t told in such a conventional, standard manner. The gorgeous presentation (twinkly piano score, check) and narrative beats share much with many a costume drama, right down to the variety of potential suitors that Belle encounters – the mean one that’s going to get all the money (played by Tom Felton, it’s another Draco Malfoy-like character), the drip one that has a good family name (Alex Jennings), and the kind-hearted commoner (Sam Reid) – that it never becomes utterly compelling. I never anticipated what was around the next corner, because I’d already seen it many times before. This Austen-esque tale raises issues still relevant with today’s world – class, contradictions, appearances – but ultimately moves quietly without shifts in the narrative, mostly due to an exposition-heavy and pedestrian script, failing to be as resonant as it could be as a result. The dresses are spectacular, the locations are beautiful, it’s a great showcase for seasoned British talent, but Belle feels as deliberate and obvious as what I’m about to say – it feels as constricted as the corsets worn by the main characters, stuck with being restrained and adhering rigidly to the social conventions like in the film. For a story where screenwriter Misan Sagay was given considerable artistic license, not limited by extensive history, it’s distinctly by-the-book.