Other Media Review

Movie Review: Belle

A+

Title: Belle
Written By: Amma Asante, Misan Sagay
Publication Info: 2014
Genre: Historical: European

Belle - movie poster with heroine front and center in a peach dress against historical backgroundBelle is a historical drama about 18th Century England that combines a thrilling coming of age and social justice story with a swoon-worthy romance.  The scenery is beautiful, the clothes are beautiful, the male lead is sensitive, and the female lead has agency. 

Also the script is so packed with brilliant lines that I want to put it in a frame and stare at it all day. 

So basically – it’s a great movie for all kinds of reasons.

Belle is a historical fiction inspired by the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed race woman who lived as an aristocrat in 18th Century England.  Not much is known about the real Dido, but we know that she seems to have been a beloved, well-educated member of the household of the Lord Chief Justice of England during a time when slavery faced serious legal challenges in the courts of Britain.  Director Amma Asanate and screenwriter Misan Sagay take the scant but exciting historical facts and weave them into a rich and thrilling romance and coming of age story in which Belle must choose whether to marry for money or for love, and must choose whether to turn a blind eye to social injustice or attempt to influence her Grand-uncle, the Chief Justice, as he prepares to rule on a court case that could further the cause of abolition.

This movie has the stately pace of most historical costume dramas, but it is electrifying because of the passionate performances and the script.  The people in this movie use words the way The Avengers use rocket launchers.  I’m sorry I don’t have any lines to repeat absolutely verbatim but also glad not to spoil them for you.

Let’s talk about the romance, shall we? Mr. Davinier, played by Sam Reid, is the son of a clergyman.  Like Belle, he fits in a middle space between gentry and commoners.  He wishes to be a Chief Justice himself one day, and he has the rank to pursue a career in law but he doesn’t have the funds without a sponsor. 

It’s really no spoiler to refer to him as the romantic lead even though Belle has another suitor.  The other suitor is portrayed immediately as a backstabbing, shallow, cruel, racist opportunist whereas Mr. Daivinier is adorkable and burns with fervor to make the world a better place.  He respects Belle as a person – as an equal.  While other people see Belle’s racial history as something to triumph over, he respects it as part of who she is.  He is the only person who asks her what she recalls of her mother (who was West Indian).  When Belle says all she knows of her mother is that she left Belle her appearance, he says, “Then you know that she was very beautiful”. 

WOW.  You. Guys.  I hope that doesn’t sound like a come-on line out of context.  In context, believe me, I could have passed out. 

And what’s great is that she returns this respect – not deference, but respect.  He is humiliated again and again because of his social stature, and she could not give a fuck about that.  When things work out for him he’s astonished and she’s all, “Well, of course you finally got a break.  You’re hard-working, principled, and brilliant, everyone can see that, and there’s no question but that you deserve to have everything you want, OBVIOUSLY”. 

Meanwhile he’s all, “Why are we wondering whether or not you should sit at dinner with your family?  You’re a lady, you're intelligent, you’re brave and capable and strong, and you should sit wherever the hell you want to, OBVIOUSLY”.  Dido is ignored because she’s a woman, and a woman of color.  Mr. Davinier is ignored because his family works and does not have money.  But once they grow to recognize each other as people, as equals, these two are an unstoppable force.

There are so many things to love about this movie – its refusal to be exploitative, its richly portrayed relationships between women of many different ages and levels of status, the relationship between Dido and her Great-Uncle, and, of course, the romance.  My one gripe is that the villains of the piece are too cartoony.  They are so bitter and so one-dimensional that they detract from the overall strength of the movie, which is that most people are actively struggling to do the right thing but don’t know what it is.  The mathematics of marriage and the mathematics of society rule the lives of Dido’s family in fascinating and horrifying ways, and this is more interesting than watching people be mean just because they’re jerks.  I’m not denying that there are people who are jerks; I’m just saying that jerks are dull whereas people who are complicated and conflicted are not.

Belle and her sister Elizabeth at a pianoforteI could write about this movie for weeks because there’s a lot to talk about in it – I haven’t even touched on the court case, for instance, and it’s the point the whole movie revolves around.  But before I quit typing and go to bed I want to say how much I love the relationship between Dido and Elizabeth, her foster sister.  I don’t have siblings, but my mom has several, and I’ve observed that no one fights like sisters, in every sense of the word.  No one fights each other like sisters (when Elizabeth and Dido, who are normally best friends, throw down, it’s not pretty) and no one fights for each other like sisters.  I love these two characters.

I found a great article about Dido at The Root.  This article also talks a bit about other people of color who lived in England at the time.  Mary Robinette Kowal has written several times on her blog about diversity in Regency England.  And of course, if you want to go further back, there’s the popular and delightful Tumbler account Medieval POC

One of the things I loved about Belle is that although Dido is the only major character on screen who is a person of color, she is not the only person of color in the film.  The maid is black (she is an ally of Dido’s who, in a touching scene, helps her with her hair) and the courtroom during the climatic trial scene has many black people in the courtroom waiting to hear the verdict.  This rang true since I’ve been learning more about the ethnic and racial make up of 18th and 19th Century England in the last year or so.

I also found this interview with the director.  There’s a ton of great interviews with her online, but I singled this one out because of this quote, when she is asked why she included romance in the story:

If I'm honest, I wanted to show a woman of color being loved. We don't see it that often. I wanted to change the conversation a little bit, change the dialogue a little bit — we are loved, [and] we can be loved. Dido was valuable enough to be loved, she was worthy of being loved, and she was loved. Her challenge was showing people the right way to love her in the way that she needed to be.


This film is currently in theatres in the US and should have a wider release during the last week of May/first weeks of June. You can find local listings at Fandango and Moviefone. You can learn more about Belle at the official website for the film

NB from Sarah: There's an interesting EW article about the battle for screenwriting credit for this film, as well as further explanation in IndieWire.) 

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  1. 1

    I saw Belle recently and loved it for all the same reasons you did.

    I want to point out one additional thing, that the quote from the director made me just realize with a sort of gut punch. Until the Harlem Renaissance, so the 1920s, there were NO dramatic roles for women of colour, even in all-black companies. None. The only roles available were comedic or supporting because allowing a woman to appear as a romantic lead was to grant her power.

    I was too busy loving everything else about the film, but now I love the fact that Belle is a romance even more.

  2. 2
    azteclady says:

    I’ve been dying to watch this, I’m hoping it finally comes out somewhere around here—but if it doesn’t? It’s definitely going to end up in my video library.

  3. 3
    Heather S says:

    I just saw the trailer for this on YouTube yesterday, when I clicked on a new video for “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries”. It looked like an AMAZING movie and I would love to see it – sadly, it’s not showing at any theater in SC right now. I will simply bide my time and hope it makes it here.

  4. 4
    Shelly says:

    I’m always so torn with stories/movies like this. I want to support it. Really I do, especially because it sheds light on an interesting historical figure. But I wonder, do we really need the umpteenth tale of the “tragic mulatto”? Its been done so much that it even has a coined phrase for it. It seems to be the portrayal is either on one side—the characters racial identity is completely ignored in the film even though its obvious that they’re of mixed black heritage, or you have the other extreme—all this angst and discomfort with your racial identity and persecution. There seems to be some type of romanticism around the “tragic mulatto” even in this day and age. It always makes my vaguely uncomfortable.

  5. 5

    I’m so THRILLED that you reviewed and loved this movie because so did I! I’ve already seen it twice and am arranging my day so that I might slip in a matinee of it today. The scenery is so lush and evocative, the dialogue is razor sharp and the actors ALL played their parts so well.  The relationship between Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido is portrayed so beautifully. 

    You hit all the salient and wonderful points about the movie and even highlighted some things I’d overlooked.  Like how awful the Ashfords were and even though the younger brother might’ve been their gateway to enlightenment, we only see the one aspect of their personalities—ambitious and prejudiced. Not that those weren’t qualities running rampant of aristocratic families of that period because they were.

    I too, loved that it was a romance. Even though the facts (scant as they are) are fudged in some places, the movie held true to what is known about Dido and her family.  I wrote a blog post about how outraged I was at the condescending tone of some of the reviews of BELLE where it was slammed for being a “romance” or reducing Dido’s tale to “romantic piffle.”  I know.  My eyes, they were rolling hard :)

    I loved this move and highly recommend it too.

  6. 6
    CarrieS says:

    @Shelly – this movie was intentionally written to subvert the idea of the “tragic mulatto” without erasing the challenges a person of mixed race might encounter.  It’s very well done, in my opinion.  Here’s some examples of how that is done – some are spoilers:




    Belle’s mother is dead, true, but her parents deeply loved one another (at least, her father loved her mother – her mother’s voice is sadly lacking).  She is not a product of rape, which is unusual in these kinds of stories.

    Belle’s foster family is concerned about race not because they think it makes her inferior in general but because they worry about how to find a place for her in the world.  They do some things right and some things wrong.

    Belle has a happy romance and a happy life with a partner who respects and adores her.  She dodges several potential “tragic mulatto” endings to land an ending that is a typical romantic ending – she marries for love, not of high rank but of respectable rank, and her partner shares her feelings.

    Belle has agency – she cannot fight the case of the slave ship in court but she does fight the case at home on her own initiative – both by arguing with her uncle and by searching his offices for information about the case which she can pass on to the opposing legal team. 

    I also liked the way the movie incorporated the legal case of the slave ship.  First of all, we never see what happened on the ship.  While there are times when I think atrocities need to be shown, in this movie, not actually showing us what happened fits the tone and themes of the movie – Belle is not submitted to atrocity as either a woman or a woman of color but as she becomes more aware of her both her privileges and her predicaments the atrocity of the ship is constantly in the back of everyone’s mind.  By not portraying the atrocity we (the audience) stay within Belle’s point of view and we are not presented with images of slaughter for our entertainment.

     

     

  7. 7
    Darlynne says:

    I cannot wait to see this film, for so many reasons. As a general rule, I don’t read reviews of movies I’ve not seen, books I haven’t read, until after the fact. But seeing your rating at the top? Huge squee. Thank you.

  8. 8
    Karin says:

    Sold! I can’t wait to see it.

  9. 9
    Shelly says:

    @Carrie – Thanks for clarifying, Carrie! I get what you’re saying and I appreciate her having a happy ending. (Reading her wikipedia entry, it sounds like they stayed true to form on the path her real life really took.)

    I guess my issue with it isn’t Belle’s story alone; its that its yet another incarnation (though it sounds more positive in its ending) of a story that’s been told a lot. Stories of the “other” or someone who is trying to find their place in society when they are very different from those around them will always be universal. Historic dramas will always be popular. But I guess when you add race, slavery, and racial identity, it sets off a trigger in me because its been done SO MUCH of it lately in Hollywood. I think, “Oh, gosh, here it goes! More black misery porn.” The previews instantly made me roll my eyes.

    BUT to be fair, I’ll withhold judgement until I actually see the film.

  10. 10
    Jane Ashford says:

    I loved this movie. I thought it was historical romance in the best sense. Wonderful acting. Also clothes!!

  11. 11

    I’m dying to see this, and it just opened today in our town. I love the portrait of the historical Belle. She looks so mischievous and smart in her pose, not to mention drop-dead gorgeous.

    Thanks for the lovely review to help pique my appetite.

  12. 12
    redheadedgirl says:

    @Shelly, I see your point, but I think the important difference here is that both the director and the screenwriter are Black women.  We’ve seen a lot of this type of story, but almost never through the lens of *Black* *Female* creators.  That changes the perspective significantly.

  13. 13

    Other than the fact that the main character is mixed race, this has none of the features of the tragic mulatto trope. The tragic mulatto trope comes in three basic flavours, the key element of which is that the main character tries to pass for white and that attempt leads to a tragic end. This is so very not a tragic mulatto tale.

    Questions of racial identity are still very much a part of the many modern Americans’ experiences through mixed-race adoption and households. Ignoring it would be disingenuous at best.

  14. 14
    MissB2U says:

    I LOVED this movie for so many reasons.  The relationship between Belle and Elizabeth was wonderful, as was the portrayal of how her family loved her.  They had no guide for raising her other than their love of her and her father, and concern for how she would fare after they were no longer there to care for her.  The movie showed how complicated it was for them to find a way to secure her future while refusing to compromise herself or her true feelings.

    The fact that Belle had a dowry while Elizabeth did not was amazing to me, and in fact she was treated like any other woman of that time who had a dowry and good family connections – men wanted what she brought to the marriage not who she really was.  Even though Elizabeth may have been more socially suitable she had a hard time finding a husband because she had no money.

    It’s a wonderful film – GO!

  15. 15
    Karin says:

    I had to look up the name of the actress that plays “Belle”, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She is just gorgeous pictured above-and the dress!

  16. 16
    Shelly says:

    (*sigh) I opened this door and stepped through it so, I guess I’d have to stay here and better explain my point.

    @Mary: Actually, the tragic mulatto trope doesn’t require a character to try to pass for white. I’m going to refer to wikipedia again on this one (though, I acknowledge it isn’t the be all, end all, but they do cite a fair amount of sources in the entry.):

    The tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries, from the 1840s.[1] The “tragic mulatto” is an archetypical mixed-race person (a “mulatto”), who is assumed to be sad, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the “white world” or the “black world”.[1] As such, the “tragic mulatto” is depicted as the victim of the society in society divided by race, where there is no place for one who is neither completely “black” nor “white”.

    Though the trope definitely includes many depictions of a character trying to pass for white, its not a requirement. Probably because some mulattoes can’t pass for white—Belle being one of them.

    And I would argue, as a mother of a biracial child, that its more disingenuous to keep depicting the same, old fashioned portrayal of mixed-raced children in film. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be done at all. I was only saying that its been done over and over again.

    @redheadgirl I think having a film written and directed by black women definitely can bring a different perspective to the film but it still doesn’t change my perception that this topic has been mined in film and literature A LOT. But again, I’d still see if because it sounds like a good film but I’d brace myself to hear/cover topics and perspectives I’ve heard before.

  17. 17
    Shannon says:

    I emailed SB about this movie.  I so wanted to see a review.  I attended the film with a blind woman.  At the end, there’s some historical facts.  I admit it, I was crying, and it was hard to read the words because I was choked up.

    I loved this film because of Dido’s agency.  She looks at situations, she feels a whole range of emotions, she finds solutions, she dares to confront people, and yes she falls in love and marries the man she loves.  There’s also the whole question about slavery portrayed in the the harsh context of traders’ ethics.  The treatment of Dido and slavery felt fresh and enlightening.

    As for the villain, I found him plausible.  I’ve lived in other societies where Western women are seen as whores who welcome any attention no matter how crude so one particular scene captured how disgusting unwelcome attention can be.  (I frequently wore spike high heels; they work very well to stomp on a man’s foot and then walk away.)

  18. 18
    Ova says:

    I want to see this. Thanks for the review!

  19. 19

    Oh, I’m so glad there’s a positive review here (I know the SBs are a tough audience). The preview for Belle looked SO AMAZING that I was sure it wouldn’t hold up. But it sounds like it did! I can’t wait for it to come to my town!

    Also…pretty dresses! Squee!

  20. 20
    Natalie Hart says:

    I just came back from seeing the movie and I’m with you: A+ all the way. For all the ways you say.

    Except that I don’t agree about the portrayal of the aristocratic suitor. I didn’t think he was backstabbing and cruel—indeed, he didn’t actively disagree with his brother when his brother was horrible, but he maintained his desire to marry Dido (as in, he proposed marriage, not a mistress situation). But I think he genuinely wanted to marry Dido and thought she was beautiful; I think he thought he was being wonderfully progressive when he proposed to her by forgiving her for her black parentage and saying he’d only think of her glorious white aristocratic blood. He genuinely seemed not to understand why any of what he said was a problem (his mother was the shallow one concerned about the money).

    And is there anyone else out there who hopes the Draco Malfoy actor gets to play a good guy one of these days?

  21. 21
    Another Rebecca says:

    Has anyone read the biography the movie is based on?

    The cover immediately reminded me of two great biographies of late 18th century women that were made into terrible movies (Marie Antoinette and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.)  It sounds like this movie was done right!

    @Sherry
    Most of the tragic mulatto portrayals in literature and film that I am familiar with are from the early to mid-twentieth century (history teacher here) and had obvious overtones of ant-miscegenation propaganda and stereotypes to reinforce the existing social order and keep everyone in their “place.”  (There is a wonderful exploration of this topic at the Jim Crow Museum website). This particular book and film do seem different from what has been done before because it is based upon an actual person and gives insight into a social and political situation in England that is not well-known in the US.  Biographies (not fictional film and literature) of individuals like Belle seem few and far between and if a wider audience can be reached through a film fictionalization (as long as it is well done and maintains key historical accuracy) I think that is wonderful.

    We all have topics that we are sensitive to, and are very familiar with, and it can be easy to say “not again” while forgetting that for many it will be their first encounter with the topic.  I sincerely hope this one maintained historical fact (Darn you directors of “The Duchess!”).

  22. 22
    Trai says:

    Carrie, may I suggest a related biography? I think it’s the one Another Rebecca is referring to above me, though the movie isn’t based on it (the release was just timed to coincide with the film release, though the cover has the movie art so it’s a bit misleading). It’s Belle: The Slave Daughter and The Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne. I saw in your comments on your Longbourn review that you loved Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen, so I think you’ll really like her biography of Dido Belle. I tore through it in the few days before I saw the movie; it was certainly the most accessible and engaging nonfiction I’ve ever read. The film takes a number of liberties with the history and plays up certain events for dramatic license, as can be expected. But it stays true to the spirit of the actual people involved. Since most information about Dido has been lost to history, the biography is more about Lord Mansfield and the abolitionists, but it was still a fascinating read that enhanced my experience of the movie. I highly recommend it.

  23. 23

    SOMEONE PLEASE, I HAZ A QUESTION!

    Okay, I know this might be a spoiler question, but can someone PLEASE tell me if this film has an HEA? I love historical dramas, and especially historical romance dramas, but I’ve been burned so many times in the past with sad endings that I avoid them at all costs. I hate sad endings, I HATE crying, and I just want my couple to be together, realistic circumstances be damned, LOL. So if anyone can tell me whether or not our couple ends up together at the end of the drama, will you please do so? Pretty please? I’ll give you an internet high five if you do!

  24. 24
    Trai says:

    ** SPOILERS **

    Yes, Jacqueline Witherspoon, the film has a very happy ending and Dido and her chosen love interest do end up together (the film turns her love interest into an abolitionist whereas in real life he was most likely a French servant, but they keep his name and the facts of their marriage intact). It’s a very optimistic movie overall.

  25. 25
    Another Rebecca says:

    @Trai
    Yes, that is the same book.  Since the cover art was the same I assumed the film was an adaptation.  Thanks for the info!

  26. 26

    I can’t wait to see this! I thought maybe I missed it in theatres already so glad it’s just now getting a wider release.

  27. 27
    Karin says:

    The New Yorker gave Belle a good review, calling it “charming and stirring” and said that Jane Austen would have been thrilled. Also according to The New Yorker, her novel Mansfield Park may have gotten its name from Lord Chief Justice Mansfield. Never heard of that one before, but it seems plausible.

  28. 28
    chacha1 says:

    I really want to see “Belle” but because of Reasons will probably have to wait to see it in some form at home.

    I saw a short interview with the director in which she said something to the effect that she was specifically drawn to a story in which a woman of color was 1) the protagonist; and 2) not brutalized.  Because that combination is excessively rare.

  29. 29

    @Trai

    THANK YOU! Seriously, thank you so much for answering my question! I’m now UBER excited to see this film because it’s officially all of my catnip! :)

  30. 30
    redheadedgirl says:

    Having finally had a chance to see Belle (and totally worth every penny and more), I think the scene that made me the most weepy was with Mabel teaching Belle how to deal with her hair. That’s a scene a white or male screenwriter never would have thought to write, and a white or male director probably never would have thought important enough to keep in the movie. 

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