Beauty is only skin-deep – that is, if you’ve been graced with the features and complexion that society deems worthy of the word; otherwise, the perception of “beauty” shall exist only, to use another proverb, in the eyes of the beholder. But where does one draw the line between what is considered beauty on the part of the whole and on the part of the individual? In a world where the standards of taste are set by an elite circle of power-holders, who is to say that the image of beauty put forth to the rest of the world from within that circle should be anything other than personal, partial and discriminating?
When Dido – the female, black protagonist of Belle, a heartfelt drama about identity, self-love, and awareness in 18th-century Britain – tearfully tugs at her luminous skin, it is the cast of ugliness in which the world has imprisoned her that she longs to rip to shreds, the limited views of a social class that has for generations maintained the pretense that loveliness only ever comes painted in a single hue. Yet the tragedy of the situation is that Dido herself believes the word of this bigoted system, or is at least overwhelmed by its influence; how can anyone begin to tackle so monstrous an institution as racism, even when one has been granted a life of immunity, and placed in a world of unequivocal privilege?
Belle is based upon the true-life figure of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the biracial, illegitimate child of an English sea captain who was brought to live a finer life with her aunt and uncle – Lord and Lady Mansfield – at their estate, Kentwood House, in the mid-1700s. Very little is known of the real Dido’s existence, but as it is here envisioned by screenwriter Misan Sagay, the young heiress’ life is given convincing treatment, depicted through an insightful writer’s astute imaginings of just what the world may have been like for such an individual.
As she is brought up within the English aristocracy, Dido is exposed to the discriminating mores of a society that is heavily constructed around the economy of slavery. As she becomes more conscious of her unique place within a racist nation – not least of all through contact with her uncle’s abolitionist legal apprentice, John Davinier – Dido slowly grows more pointed in her conviction to see through a legal case being evaluated by her uncle (who is Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), the outcome of which could significantly impact the abolitionists’ efforts to emancipate England’s slaves.
The screenplay by Ms. Sagay is well-plotted and serves the subject well, but the film is nonetheless clunky at times, a fact that is mostly due to some awkward direction from Amma Asante, as well as some choppy editing by Pia Di Ciaula and Victoria Boydell. Also hindering the overall credibility of this work are the several subtle hints that what we are watching is the result of modern pretentions to history, and not history itself; at times the actors will unavoidably possess a contemporary look beneath their wigs and rented costumes, and certain patterns in behavior tend to muddle the illusion of time.
On the other hand, the score from Rachel Portman is appropriately lush and romantic, and the performances are, for the most part, rather good. In the lead role of Dido, Gugu Mbatha-Raw makes for a wide-eyed beauty, concern spilling over her delicate features as the very real troubles of this Anglo-Saxon paradise weigh heavily upon her breast. She can be a bit overly-emphatic at times, but in the end Ms. Mbatha-Raw carries the part off well, delivering pathos and a noticeable comic flair with feeling and tact. Also of note is Sam Reid as Mr. Davinier, the abolitionist legal apprentice and Dido’s love interest; his work here is quite impressive, as he delivers a performance marked by real sensitivity and sincerity that matches his name with Ms. Mbatha-Raw’s as a promising talent for whom to be on the lookout. In the supporting cast, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, and Miranda Richardson are as reliable as ever, while James Norton, Tom Felton, and Matthew Goode also have strong moments.
Whatever flaws this film may have in the way of technical rough edges are hardly worth noticing, as the final result is too good to pass up. A very fine film, Belle takes advantage of an excellent subject – a mere sketch pulled from the crowded drawers of European history – and turns it into highly gratifying dramatic entertainment that makes for a surprise bonus to the loveliness of these springtime months. It makes one think about how even today our world is built upon images of beauty that are likelier to exclude than they are to invite and inform. Yet if we are to learn anything from this Dido’s invented yet highly plausible story, it is that standards are made to be challenged, especially when they stand in the way of something so precious as the appreciation of self, and something so detrimental as the equality of human beings.