London-born but of Ghanaian descent, Asante became fascinated with the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mid-18th century lady born the illegitimate daughter of an English aristocrat and a West Indies slave. Once her mother died, Dido’s father whisked the biracial girl out of squalor and off to live with wealthy white relatives. Thus she grew up in a luxurious estate with walls draped in portraits of white masters flanked by humble, dull-eyed black slaves. Taking a cue from Jane Austen, Belle leaps from these grim beginnings to Dido’s early womanhood and all the joys and troubles it brings. And like Austen’s works, the script by Misan Sagay is fueled by an effusive sense of sisterhood, in this case between Dido and her cousin Elizabeth.
This focus—and indeed the film—was inspired by a portrait of the pair that dates back to 1779. Asante explained its influence to The Guardian in 2014, saying, “I looked at that portrait and thought: oh my God - look how Elizabeth loves her! I have never seen a person of colour in a painting from this period not being treated as a pet.” But Belle’s face rejects being a prop like the slave children seen in most paintings of this time. “It said: I am here. I’m relevant. I’m a lady. I’m brown. I’m made up of many things. I’m happy with who I am.”
The creation of this portrait above becomes an elegant element of the film. But Belle is not the story of Dido becoming comfortable in her own skin. She’s good. It’s the world that needs to change.
Through a scene of whispering relatives, the film succinctly sets up the obstacles of how Dido’s race, gender and class collide. She’s a lady and so must marry to be provided for. But a “proper” family wouldn’t dare marry their son to an even partially black woman, and her family won’t allow their name be sullied by marrying her to a low-status man. Yet Belle deals not only with how Dido combats each preconception, but also how she fights for her the rights of slaves—and by extension her own identity—through a historic court case.
Its politics are engaging, but what makes Belle brilliant is how it transforms a potentially austere material into vibrant and vital drama. The lush production design does its share, not only setting up the varying degrees of haves and have-nots of the film, but also giving audiences glorious eye candy in the forms of Dido and Elizabeth’s colorful gowns. Beyond that, Asante has brought together an excellent ensemble that paints Dido’s world with masterful strokes.
Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, and Tom Wilkinson are perfection as the posh and reluctantly progressive Belles, while Matthew Goode pops in for a brief but heartbreaking appearance as Dido’s dear daddy. With hair like sunshine, flesh like snow and a socially acceptable love of trouble, Sarah Gadon is spot-on as Elizabeth, the high society ideal and Dido’s foil and most loyal friend. Sam Reid is stern yet sexy as a rebellious lawyer. And to play the racist baddies, Miranda Richardson and Tom Felton stay true to Harry Potter-type, spitting spiteful slams like, “One does not make a wife of the rare and exotic. One samples it on the cotton fields of the Indies…Then finds a pure English rose to decorate their home.”
But the beating heart of this film is the captivating Gugu Mbatha-Raw, smoothly shouldering this remarkable story as Dido. If you loved any incarnation of Pride and Prejudice’s Lizzie Bennet, you’ll cheer for Mbatha-Raw’s Dido. She is radiant, carrying poise, wit and a palpable inner strength that pulls at our heart strings with every steadying inhale, every sly gaze to her forbidden paramour, and every unrepentant declaration. All this builds to a conclusion that will lift your heart high above the rafters.
So, indulge in the beauty of this biopic. Discover the outstanding filmmaking of Asante, and the dazzling star power of Mbatha-Raw. Enjoy Belle.
Kristy Puchko invites you to tweet at her with your #52FILMSBYWOMEN picks.