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BELLE (review)

Written by Misan Sagay
Directed by Amma Asante
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sam Reid, Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson

Lord Mansfield: You must protect your emotions if you are to prevent love and the law from devastating you. 

Born in 1761 in the West Indies to a British aristocrat and an African slave, Dido Elizabeth Belle’s true story is fascinating. As a child, her father, Admiral John Lindsay, brought her back to England to be raised in great opulence with his relatives, the Mansfields. However, due to the illegitimate nature of her birth and her Mother’s birthright, Dido was treated with frigid, malicious prejudice by the Mansfields’ upper class peers and, as per societal rules, could not be presented as an aristocratic equal in the public domain. Unperturbed by the limits ensconced on her, Dido unabashedly challenged the ethics of those around her, willing them to see the limitations in their morality and the astounding beauty of her essence. 

Dido Elizabeth Belle’s little known story is delicately brought to life in director, Amma Asante’s period piece, BELLE. Perhaps due to its languishing for seven years in pre-production purgatory due to lack of funding, the film lacks focus and oftentimes feels like a blend of Jane Austen’s EMMA, with shades of the racial politics of AMISTAD and LINCOLN. Like EMMA, Dido’s (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) story is one of a strong willed heroine who, thanks to her father’s (Matthew Goode) fortune, is matched with a perfectly serviceable young suitor, Oliver Ashford (James Norton). Her closest ally and companion, Elizabeth (Canada’s “It Girl”, Sarah Gadon), meanwhile, yearns for the lecherous James Ashford (Tom Felton, typecast here as a variant on his Harry Potter character, Draco Malfoy). And just as Emma does, Dido aches for her emotional and intellectual equal, passionate barrister-in-training, John Davinier (Sam Reid). It is telling that during the ten-year gap between the release of her heralded debut feature, A WAY OF LIFE, and BELLE, Asante was in the midst of developing a Jane Austen adaptation. It also doesn’t help that the talented composer to the 1996 film adaptation of EMMA, Rachel Portman, is the composer of the musical score here as well. 


The heaving, corseted bosoms, Merchant Ivory-like romantic plot in BELLE is enough to colour a film, yet screenwriter Misan Sagay overfills it with an anti-climactic judicial case. Though its real-life landmark ruling was one of the groundbreaking cases that led to the abolition of slavery, the storyline feels tacked on to an already overstuffed script. The superb cast led by the exquisitely graceful Mbatha-Raw, does its best to handle the tonal shifts, yet the proceedings feel disjointed. The detailed costume design and lush art direction make the film magnificent to behold, yet I kept hoping for a film with more than just surface beauty for the captivating Dido Belle.

3 sheep

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