Belle (2014)

One of my anticipated films of the year, Belle was released yesterday in NYC and LA. So let’s talk about it.

Gugu Mbatha Raw

A while back, I wrote a somewhat lengthy piece expressing my anticipation about seeing this film, so I will not go into extensive detail recapping the who’s what’s, where’s and why’s of this true story.

I know a lot of promotional pieces are pitching it as a “true-life” Jane Austen story that has a relevant and important social/political/historical seam running through it. I suppose that is pretty accurate; as a point of comparison, when I heard this, my mind went to the 1999 Austen adaptation of Mansfield Park, a film that for its own purposes took liberties with the mention of slavery in the source material and made it a central theme in the movie. The result (and response by many) was mixed at best. At least here with Belle, we have something that is close to the ground since you are dealing with the lives of real people.

And while there is certainly the overarching theme of slavery and Britain’s role in it, the film is also have a very personal story in which the players are burdened by issues of identity, perpetuated by race, gender and class.

Of course the matters of race predominate the story as we are seeing the film principally through the eyes of the titular character (called Dido in the film), played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Her mother dead and her Naval officer father unable to care for her, she is brought up alongside her cousin Elizabeth on a great English country estate under the watchful eye of her uncle (Tom Wilkinson), aunts (Emily Watson and Penelope Wilton). Dido and Elizabeth basically grow up as sisters, but as they reach adulthood, the circumstances of their lives means they are set on divergent paths, as the aforementioned matters of race, economic and gender dynamics affect them in different way.

gugu mbatha-raw, belle

One of the more welcoming elements of the film that resonated for me were the moments realness and honesty. I affectionately recall (and can somewhat relate to) one scene when Dido is combing her hair with some difficulty. It was just one of many flashes of levity that breathed fresh air into the film. Kudos to director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay; it is a credit to them that their collective vision elicits this response from their audience. It is also important to note that they are both woman of African descent (black British), which from my POV explains why many elements of film work so well especially as the discussion of the role Africa slaves and women play in this society.  This project is a great example of the importance of why diversity in the stories that are told in cinema matters.

As I am writing this, I am realizing just how taken by the film I am – the set pieces, the performances all around (I could write a paragraph on Miranda Richardson alone – but this shout out will have to suffice); nearly everything regarding this film made it an enjoyable watch for me. Why should I be so surprised? you might ask. Well, I guess I am slightly bemused because when I looked at my notes for Belle immediately following the screening last week, there were comments about how I thought the dialogue in places was a bit too predictable, which, in hindsight still remains a valid point in my  opinion. But with a little distance from the film, I find this a somewhat forgivable offense, given it is probably down to my (over)familiarity with Regency/19th century/Austen romantic dramas and their associated tropes. But let this serve as a warning to you, especially if you find yourself ‘calling the lines’ before they are delivered on screen.

Belle 2014

So all in all, yeah, you should still definitely seek this out, because there is enough “there” there to keep you engaged and entertained.

 

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

Coming Soon: Belle (2014)

This film was not initially on my “looking forward to seeing in 2014” list, but lists are always subject to change and modification. Belle, which premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, is the true story of mixed race Dido Elizabeth Belle, the natural daughter of an 18th century Royal Navy Admiral, and her life as a member of an aristocratic family.

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In reading the press notes for the film I was fascinated by how the film got its start. Belle’s writer, Misan Sagay, found inspiration when looking at this Georgian-era portrait of Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth, while visiting Scone Palace at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland:

Dido_Elizabeth_Belle

Although Belle was not named in the guide accompanying the painting (attributed to painter Johann Zoffay), Sagay left determined to find out her identity.

In what can only be described as serendipitous, Sagay discovered that her son’s Godmother was a friend of Lady Mansfield, the 8th removed descendant of the character from the film, and from there the archives were opened, allowing Sagay to unlock the mysteries of the relationship between the two friends knows as “Belle and Bette”.   

The film gained a head of steam when producer Damian Jones, who also was familiar with the painting, came across Sagay’s script through a mutual friend.

For director Amma Asante, this film was an opportunity to tell a period story that simultaneously deals with the familiar themes of romantic machinations and the British class system, all within the context of the historical issue of slavery:

“I’ve never seen a film about the Jane Austen elements we know so well – the marriage market, the lives of girls growing up into society ladies, the romantic longing – combined with a story about the end of slavery,” says Asante. 

Check out the trailer here:

While the actual story is not be wholly unique, as we are fully aware that interracial relationships and their subsequent offspring occurred (duh), it has not received such a treatment on the big screen.

Equally of interest to me is how racial politics in light of the African slave trade are portrayed outside of the United States of America.

Finally, driving home my enthusiasm for Belle is that the story is told with a decidedly female voice, punctuated by the fact that the director is a woman of the African diaspora (Black British).

The cast features Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Belle), Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton and Miranda Richardson.

Belle will come to American screens on May 2nd.