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Posted October 28, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Best of 2014
 
 

Belle: One of the Best of 2014

I have to admit, I didn’t expect much from Belle. It looked to me like standard costume drama for middle-aged housewives. But Belle has real content. In fact, it is packed with ideas and is one of the best films of 2014.

Belle is occasionally didactic and overly ornate. It also bends over backward to appeal to Downton Abbey fans (the popular PBS series). This is at times a little nauseating. Nothing is quite so vulgar as trying to appeal to mainstream audiences and their favored formulas of the moment.

But the weaknesses in Belle are far outweighed by its strengths. Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay are extraordinarily talented. Neither is brand new to film, but they haven’t done much before this. For all intents and purposes, Belle is their first major project — one of the most exciting cinema debuts of the year.

Ditto for British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays the main character. Ms. Raw has been active in British and American television for 10 years and done some cinema. But Belle represents her real breakthrough onto the world stage in a lead role. She has a great career ahead of her, if she can get roles that match her talent. Producers: please give this woman the opportunities she needs to continue developing her talent.

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Belle is set in the 1700s and based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman who lived most of her life in aristocratic splendor in England after being born to a slave in the Caribbean. Dido’s father, a commander in the British Navy, did something very radical. He took her to England and left her with his family, insisting they treat her as his heiress.

You can imagine the dilemma they faced. Do they risk the family’s status by treating Dido as one of their own? Or do they alienate her father by refusing to do as he asks? They choose the former, acceding to his wishes.

Being black, illegitimate, and the child of a slave, she was not fully accepted into aristocratic society — no surprise there. An ordinary film would have simply captured the resistance of the white aristocracy and presented her just as a victim. But Belle goes way beyond that. It critiques Dido as well. She has her own issues with which to contend.

You might think that Dido would become a critic of aristocratic mores, given that she is not fully accepted. But she actually becomes their biggest champion, ferociously clinging to every bit of status she can claim. What I love about the film is that it shows how everyone is caught up in the sickness of social stratification. Those most victimized by it are sometimes also its fiercest perpetrators.

Example: Dido lords her status over a lower-class white man (played with dashing leading-man charisma by newcomer Sam Reid) who expresses interest in her, scoffing at his advances and barely deigning to look at him. She does come around, realizing that this man has as much character, talent, and intelligence as she. She also grows to the point where she starts losing any shame she felt at being the child of a slave. She begins to feel proud of both sides of her ancestry.

But her family is not happy with how she grows and develops. They actually become enraged when chooses a non-aristocrat as a beau. How dare she consort with those below her station! How will it reflect on the family? Their hope is that she will live off the extremely generous pension her father has left her and use her talents to be a sort of trophy for the family. If she cannot marry a nobleman, she should live as a respectable spinster, not threatening the family’s status any more than she already has.

Another wonderful aspect of the film is that you can see the family’s point. In the context of the time, their viewpoint is not incomprehensible. They have risked everything for her, going out on many limbs to find a comfortable place for her in the society of the time, only to have her become a threat to the family. The intelligent way Belle presents intractable social dilemmas is almost Shakespearean. This isn’t good guys versus bad guys. Everyone is tainted, and there are no easy moral choices.

I won’t say how it turns out. I’ll just say that things get even more complex when the question of abolition arises. At the time, England was being torn apart by the question of slavery. Dido’s uncle (played wonderfully by Tom Wilkinson) plays a major part in this as the judge hearing a landmark case questioning the legitimacy of the slave trade. His judgment will essentially decide whether England continues in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

How fascinating that Dido gets caught up so closely in the greatest moral decision of her time concerning race. I won’t reveal how the court case ends. I’ll just say that it makes for riveting cinema.

Belle may have weaknesses, but it is overall a triumph. It is emotionally engaging, exquisitely beautiful, and intellectually complex, richly deserving an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Brava to the creative team for a major artistic achievement.


William Dunmyer

 
William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.