Baltimore City Paper

Film Review: Belle

Directed by Amma Asante

Playing at the Charles Theater

Based on a true story, Belle, directed by Amma Asante, opens upon an English trading town in 1769 where Dido (Lauren Julien-Box as young Dido; Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the older Dido), a shy little girl, is standing alone inside a worker's area, waiting to meet her father (Matthew Goode) for the first time. A child born out of wedlock during that time period is a scandal in itself, but the fact that she is black and he is white leads us to expect a film about society's disapproval.

Her father shatters this expectation when he speaks the first words in the film, saying, "How lovely you are." His words set the tone for the film, which is not really about racial injustice at all. Dido is loved dearly, first by her father, then by her two aunts, uncle, and cousin—her new adopted (and all-white) family. Yet there is a noticeable tension when formalities like dining separately from guests have to be observed, and when court cases involving slavery are brought before her uncle, the Lord Chief Justice.

The case in question is an insurance matter. Should a ship transporting slaves be compensated by its insurance company for dumping its "cargo" (the slaves) due to lack of sufficient water on board? For any other inanimate cargo, this would be a simple case of whether the cargo loss was necessary or if the ship's captain and crew cast off the goods purely to obtain insurance money through fraud. For Lord Mansfield, human rights do not even enter the equation.

John Davinier (Sam Reid) champions that aspect of the case. The son of a reverend, who is dealing with classist discrimination of his own, Davinier awakens Dido to the problems she hardly knew existed, having been brought up to be, in essence, a white woman of high status with an unfortunate outer reminder of her ties to slavery.

The title of the film gives away who the story is truly about—not Belle the young woman, whose name was changed to Dido when she was adopted, but her mother, the original Belle, and the part of Dido that still lives in hiding under her white upbringing—a part that she is aching to share.

There is also that classical 18th-century dilemma of finding a husband, which is complicated by the presence of two suitors. Actor Tom Felton plays one of them, and his character is just as dastardly as his Harry Potter alter-ego, Malfoy—but this time he tries a little bit harder to hide his villainy. Still, it's hard to take him seriously in that powdered wig.

The romance is soon complicated by money. In this case, however, the burden falls not on Dido, but on her adoptive cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who is, ironically, considered the more unfortunate one. Despite her noble upbringing, Elizabeth is without an inheritance substantial enough to attract a man of equal status, and therefore doomed to remain unmarried. Dido, on the other hand, is heiress to a small fortune left by her father. She doesn't need to marry. It is here that Belle truly triumphs, showing that injustice is not all or nothing, and leaving us with the complicated idea that, in some ways, Dido is more fortunate than her white peers. (Lindsay VanAsdalan)