Amma Asante’s powerful, moving and gently subversive romantic melodrama is a finely wrought tale of a woman out of time, a film that plays eloquently upon the heartstrings as it interweaves familiar personal intrigue with stirring social history. Intelligently combining the enticing pleasures of a ripe costume drama  with the still shameful legacy and lessons of the slave trade, Belle  dresses its entryist agendas in the fashionable finery of a multiplex crowd-pleaser. The result is a handsomely mounted and emotionally engaging drama that smartly examines issues of race, class and gender while leaving nary a dry eye in the house.
Like Girl with a Pearl Earring  (both Tracy Chevalier’s novel and Peter Webber’s subsequent film), Misan Sagay’s inventive script takes inspiration from an enigmatic painting upon which the writer projects a heady mix of fact and fantasy. The unsigned picture  at the heart of Belle(which once hung in Hampstead’s grand Kenwood House) depicts what Asante calls “a bi-racial girl, a woman of colour, who’s slightly higher than her white counterpart”, a significant placement implying a social equality extraordinary in the late 18th century. But what does the hand of one young woman upon the waist of the other imply – sisterhood or rivalry? And what should we read from the expressions (playful? defiant? mischievous?) upon the faces of the artist’s subjects?
This much we know; that Dido Elizabeth Belle – the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy captain, John Lindsay, and an African woman named Maria Belle – was raised at Kenwood House in north London by her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, where she became companion to her half-cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. As lord chief justice, Mansfield heard several significant slavery  cases, including the 1772 Somerset v Stewart case (which questioned whether slavery was supported by common law), and the Zong ship case, which hinged upon the deliberate drowning of human “cargo”. The latter of these forms the backdrop of Sagay’s narrative, providing an Amistad-like framework for the discussion of human rights versus property law, arcane legal argument circling absolute moral imperative.
Describing her film as a hybrid of “the Jane Austen elements we know so well – the marriage market, the lives of girls growing up into society ladies, the romantic longing – combined with a story about the end of slavery”, Asante  paints an enthralling portrait of a woman struggling to define her identity, caught between stairs in terms of social custom and protocol. Too elevated to eat with the servants, yet too lowly to dine (in company, at least) with her “family”, Dido must find her own space in a world in which her colour marks her as unique among her peers.
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