Maybe, in this post-12 Years a Slave moment, the time is right for Amma Asante’s new period drama Belle; maybe it will prove doubly wrong the Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom scribe William Nicholson’s recent contention that the guilt white audiences feel over the black experience has by now been exhausted.
The film itself could certainly do with a leg-up and a helping hand: Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay have taken a notable true story – that of a mixed-race girl brought from Africa to 18th century Hampstead, and raised in a manner befitting an heiress – and done it only a fitful, cursory sort of justice. Steve McQueen may have opened a window, but he also raised the bar.
In the exclusively white preserve of London high society, Dido Elizabeth Belle (played here first by Lauren Julien-Box, then by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) took on the peculiar status of a freakshow attraction, referred to as variously “an exotic flower” and “the infamous mulatto”. Even within the broadly liberal and welcoming household of High Court judge Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), Dido was evidently considered a problem: she’s quickly stitched into corsets and offered up to potential suitors she has scant interest in, the idea perhaps being that she might thereafter be hidden away.
It is, then, a wholly admirable aim to rescue this young woman from dusty, under-read history books, and bestow upon her a renewed visibility and agency. Yet Belle is only Asante’s second film – after 2004’s notably gritty council-estate drama A Way of Life – and that inexperience manifests itself in clunky close-ups and some wayward junior performances: the boys, in particular, rarely rise above the status of vaguely handsome planks, which renders all Sagay’s romantic gestures as so much dead narrative weight.
Where Belle truly differs from 12 Years is in its (frightfully English, frightfully costume drama) determination to hold the atrocities of its world at some remove. The Mansfield household is ablaze with talk of the Zong massacre – an actual event in which shackled slaves were tossed overboard by a shipping company in order to initiate an insurance claim – yet here it is only ever talk; even that noted softie Steven Spielberg didn’t back away from dramatising such a scene for 1997’s Amistad, though he was presumably operating at a budgetary level far beyond Asante’s modest means.
Yet as Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights revealed, there can be advantages to letting a filmmaker who isn’t entirely schooled in (or interested in upholding) costume drama etiquette loose on the form. Rather than seeking to bury it under satin and taffeta, Asante preserves a certain onscreen prickliness around not just race, but sex and money; she picks out such telling details as the portraits that show black cherubs gathering at the feet of blanched muses. (As Dido observes of one tavern sign: “As in life, we are no better in paintings.”)
The scenes in which Dido tears at her skin, and struggles to comb out her hair, will presumably resonate with 21st century Belles. And Asante constructs one deeply clever sequence, in which Dido and her white half-cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) occupy the same space in the frame while being told which one of them will be attending debutante season – further underlining how these two girls are equal yet, in the eyes of their world, very different. (Far less clever: the scene that unites the two at the piano. You fear they’re going to bash out “Ebony and Ivory”.)
At the very least, Asante has provided a belated coming-out role for Mbatha-Raw after several years of acclaimed theatre work: with her striking, thoughtful, ever-responsive features, she holds the film together through even its patchier stretches. As with 12 Years’ Lupita Nyong’o, one suspects we’ll be seeing a good deal more of this actress in the years to come; for anyone championing greater diversity in cinema, this can only be a step in the right direction.
(MovieMail, June 2014)
Belle screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1.05am.