It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen-era dramas attract large and devoted audiences. Add to the mix a real-life heroine who is the daughter of a British aristocrat and African slave, and the potential for tear-jerking, romantic moments grows exponentially. If only Belle, directed by Ghanaian Amma Asante, had a clever script or thematic nuance. While it boasts pleasant camera work and competent actors, Belle reverts into the tropes of Austenian costume drama without any of the depth.
The film begins as an unlikely Cinderella story. Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a sad-eyed orphan in rags when her biological father scoops her out of poverty and entrusts her to the care of his uncle and aunt, who parent another orphaned niece as well. Belle has every advantage: a loving family, a greater fortune than her cousin, education. However, as she grows up, Belle realizes that she holds a different social status from her family members. By custom, she cannot eat with the family’s dinner guests, join society, or expect to marry. Britain is still the financial hub of the slave trade. As an illegitimate child of a slave mother, Belle is looked upon with suspicion at best and often disdain.
Among a swirl of garden parties, thwarted love, and marriage-minded mothers, an insurance case that threatens slavery rises to the highest British court—and Belle’s uncle is the judge. Of course, Belle finds herself getting into the case, especially when dashing young John Davinier tries to persuade her uncle to rule against slavery.
The film shows its potential in its quiet, wordless moments. Belle bonds with a free African servant who shows her how to brush her hair. She gazes longingly at family portraits that place Africans in the background and dreads sitting for a portrait with her cousin—how will the artist portray her? One of the best moments comes when Belle looks into her gilded mirror after an awkward dinner party. She’s beautiful. She’s privileged. But society has locked her out. The only reason she is not accepted is the color of her skin. She begins to claw at her face and tear her hair, all in an effort to escape prejudice. Mbatha-Raw’s anguished performance makes the scene, and she generally does the best she can with the script by lending her character gravitas and intelligence.
Good Austen-era films succeed due to their scathing social commentary, bright characters, and witty banter. Belle’s script limps through a typical Austen plotline without explaining character motivations or providing sharp dialog. When Belle’s father first introduces her to his aunt and uncle, the actors violate the cardinal rule of screenwriting: show, don’t tell. The uncle “reminds” Belle’s father of his important position as a judge and explains how Belle’s cousin came to live with them. Descriptions of the Zong court case, where slavers threw diseased slaves overboard to get an insurance claim, tire viewers with exposition-heavy dialog. Characters labor through their lines without much conviction because both the lines and characters lack depth.
The concept of the film is truly intriguing, but the filmmakers decided to stick with convention and shun any uncomfortable honesty. We have met all the characters before: the idealistic young lawyer Belle initially hates, the snobby cad who woos Belle for her money, the gruff but kindly uncle. I immediately recognized Mr. Darcy, Jane, Elizabeth, and Mr. Wickham—the fact that the characters had different names made little difference.
In fact, character inconsistencies come across as offensive. If Belle’s father loved her so much, why did he let her live in rags until her slave mother died? Why did he not bring her mother home, as well? Belle’s father speaks words of devotion to her, but he reveals no motivation for his unconventional open-mindedness. After he drops her off with his uncle, he leaves and apparently never sees Belle again before he dies. At best, the father’s altruism has no cultural or emotional basis—at worst, it becomes a grudging deed of guilt.
Throughout the film, characters either seem to accept Belle as a lovely young lady or shun her as an illegitimate half-breed. For a film that explores the remarkable life of an African-English aristocrat who had to fight social injustice, Belle leaves too many unanswered questions. I, for one, would have appreciated characters deep enough to face their prejudices and overcome them.
After watching the movie, I looked into the real story behind Belle. It actually made a lot more sense than the film. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born a slave in the West Indies, but her father brought her back to England when she was 4 years old. She lived in luxury but did not have as lavish a fortune as the film made out—she even supervised her uncle’s poultry and dairy yards. While Belle’s family excluded her from social dinners, at least one visitor was shocked at how much the family accepted her. Belle indeed married Davinier (a servant in real life) and saw her uncle rule against the slave trade. She died at 43 after having three children. Historians still call her portrait with her cousin a remarkable portrayal of racial equality.
Belle could have been a fascinating portrayal of the triumph of love over prejudice and injustice—it is based on a remarkable true story, after all. Instead, it devolved into a poor hybrid of any Jane Austen adaptation and Amazing Grace. Perhaps the film would attract some Austen fans, but Mr. Darcy put it best: “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me.”