Director: Amma Asante
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson
Watch Belle online in the UK: Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Black women are just one group in society whose stories are not being told in cinema, whose perspectives are largely ignored. Think of the black actresses who get leading roles in widely released films and the chances are you can name them all without too much of a problem. One person that should be added to that depressingly short list is Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the brilliant leading lady in Belle. The film follows Dido Belle, a mixed race woman who is adopted by her noble grandparents, and how she tries to work out her place in a society that doesn’t know where she fits. It proves these are stories that deserve to be told and that we can break the cultural homogeneity of genres traditionally dominated by white people – such as the Austen-esque period romance – if we just thought a little more about diversity.
Not that this is a heavy film weighed down by cultural import. One of the joys of Belle is the lightness that director Amma Asante brings to it, making the audience invest as much in the heroine’s marriage prospects as in her anxiety about the social status of a mixed race noble. There is a delicacy to the way that Dido tries to work out her place, characterised by her looking at the way that black people are portrayed in contemporary paintings: subservient; lower in the frame; inferior. As such, when she finds out that she is to be painted, her first reaction is fear. (As the film is based on the painting she is ultimately a part of, it’s an excellent, original way of exploring the theme.)
Mbatha-Raw’s performance is incredible, both fiery and vulnerable. The wonderful screenplay, rich with verbose debate and refined language, could sound archaic or pompous in the wrong hands, but Mbatha-Raw makes it relevant and gripping. She isn’t quite matched by some of the men in the supporting cast, but perhaps playing the potential love interests of someone who burns so brightly on screen makes it difficult to leave any impression of your own. Her adopted father, played by the ever dependable Tom Wilkinson, is the character who otherwise makes the most impact, trying to deal with a momentous legal case about the death of hundreds of slaves. The historical connection between this and Dido’s life is exaggerated and a little fanciful, but it makes for exceptionally compelling viewing.
Paintings, like period dramas, are dominated in Western culture by white people. It’s what makes the art that this film based on, and the film itself, so remarkable – a black woman is in the centre of the frame. Let’s hope that cinema starts catching up with this idea.
Belle is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.
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