San Francisco Chronicle
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 23, 2014
"Belle" takes a real-life historical figure, Dido Elizabeth Belle, and shoehorns her story into the structure of a Jane Austen novel. Some of it fits, and the rest is fiction — including some of the most satisfying parts.
This is to some degree disappointing beyond the usual disappointment of finding out that something you thought was true was made up, after all. It also calls into question the whole narrative strategy. Why pattern it after Austen anyway? Why not present the story as it really happened? Or, if it needed embellishment, why not adopt a less familiar form? As it stands, the Austen parallels make it impossible not to know, 20 minutes in, how the movie will resolve 80 minutes later.
Yet the best answer to these questions is the movie itself, which is appealing even with all the seams and patterns showing. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of a black woman and a white captain in the British Navy. She was brought up to be a lady at the estate of her uncle, Lord Mansfield, one of the most powerful men in late 18th-century Britain. She grew up as the best friend of her cousin Elizabeth.
All the above is true. Much of the rest in "Belle" is made up, changed or embellished, but perhaps the best way to watch the movie is not as fact but as an Austen movie about race. To the credit of screenwriter Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante, that shotgun marriage between Austen and history makes for a compelling combination.
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"Belle" incites strong emotion from the beginning, when, as a little girl, Dido is brought by her father to the uncle's home. Lord (Tom Wilkinson) and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) look out the window at the two little girls playing, and already they're concerned about Dido's marriage prospects. That sounds like an Austen trope, but it's a reasonable way for her adoptive parents to be thinking. This innocent child doesn't know that she is growing up in a racist world. They can create a paradise for her on this estate, but what will life be like for a mixed- race woman when her guardians are gone?
Then the movie jumps 15 years and becomes the story of two beautiful women, who, in true Austen tradition, must test out and audition for potential husbands. As the movie would have it, each woman has one big advantage and one big disadvantage. The obstacle for Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is her race, but at least she has money — a sizable annual income left to her by her father. Elizabeth is white, but she doesn't have a cent.
As an intelligent woman whose upbringing has made it impossible for her to nurture any notions of inferiority, Mbatha-Raw is affecting, a lively person stuck in the wrong century. The filmmakers devise a powerful moment for the actress, in which Dido sits at her vanity, rubbing her face in frustration, as though trying to make herself white.
As Lord Mansfield, Tom Wilkinson plays a stern realist, very much a man of his time, but one with a conscience and a more tender inner life. His and Mbatha-Raw's performances are the ones to take from "Belle." In a side plot, the movie conflates two cases involving the slave trade (separated by a decade), which Mansfield ruled on in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice. The conflation makes for good dramatic fiction.
The screenwriter has said that "Belle" was initially inspired by her seeing a painting of Dido and Elizabeth. The painting, worth seeking out online, gets more beautiful the more you look at it. In the ease of their postures and the warm and confident expressions of their faces, one can see that those young women knew their own worth and each other's.
"Belle" isn't a perfect movie; in some ways it's obvious. But even if it's not true to history, it's true to that painting and worthy of its inspiration.