What have we come to expect from period pieces, nowadays? A heroine who is as feisty as she is pretty, a hero who is both dashing and broody, and a rocky road to love beset by rigid social conventions and a host of colourful characters. That is a checklist we can fervently tick off with Belle, however this is a period piece with a big difference.
Dido Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was the child of a Naval Captain and a slave. At the beginning of the film, her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) arrives at the slum young Belle has been dwelling in since her mother’s death. We see that he is a kind man who would cherish his daughter. However, due to his career and a mission requiring an imminent departure, he is not in a position to care for Belle, so he must place her in the care of his Uncle and Aunt, Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson). Their house is also home to a spinster Aunt (Penelope Wilton) as well as another nephew’s illegitimate daughter. Elizabeth’s (Sarah Gadon) father refuses to acknowledge her existence so her future is dependent on her finding a husband of means. The family is stunned by Belle, obviously not expecting the child to be black. However they are ultimately swayed to take her in by John’s desperate situation and the goodness of their heart. Her father acknowledges her as his own thereby endowing her with his name and the social standing that comes with it.
Belle is raised as an aristocrat, yet her skin colour sees her on the fringes, not quite belonging anywhere. The family comes to accept Belle, none more quickly than Elizabeth, with the two girls seeing themselves as sisters. As they become eligible women, the girls are then encouraged to seek husbands, especially Elizabeth, who has no money but better chances of success compared to her mixed-race cousin. Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) and her two sons, James (a typecast Tom Felton) and Oliver (James Norton) soon home in on the cousins, both ultimately in the pursuit of wealth not love. Oliver is taken by Belle’s beauty as well as her wealth and has his eye fixed on her.
Enter John Davinier, a clergyman’s son and an aspiring Lawyer (Sam Reid) who gains the tutelage of Mansfield. He is an Idealist, passionate about social change, however there is friction between himself and Belle from the moment they meet. She is arrogant and brash, behaviour he reciprocates through their initial encounters, yet they are drawn to each other. Mansfield, who is presiding over a case that has the potential to end England as he knows it, is beset by opposing forces. On one side, influential men who want England to stay as it is, and on the other, the passionate idealism of John, trying to make the world a better place. On that same side is the inescapable frustration and sadness of Belle whom he has come to love as his daughter. Mansfield ends John’s tutelage and bans Belle from seeing him after John explains the horrendous details of the case to Belle. Now the pair must meet in secret. They surprise each other with their nature; she is an intellectual concerned with the world around her and he is ahead of his time, dedicated to defending the rights of his fellow humans. Despite both being in unwanted engagements, they soon find themselves falling in love.
Belle muses to John that she has been ‘blessed with freedom twice over’, on account of her station in the Mansfield household as a person of colour and as a woman who has inherited a fortune after the untimely death of her father. She has largely been spared being subjected to prejudice due to the protection of her wealthy family, and as an heiress she has been afforded the freedom of not having to marry for money. However, she is encouraged to marry Oliver lest she ends up a spinster as her colouring makes her unlikely to receive any offers of marriage. Yet it is John who inspires her to want more from life, telling her that she should be treasured by her equal.
This debut feature by director/writer Amma Asante is a thing of aching beauty. It is a coming of age story where, despite her privileges, the fate of our heroine is at the mercy of the people around her due to her gender and colour. However, it is through love that Belle finds the courage to challenge society and prove she is capable of making her own fate. The magnetic chemistry between Mbatha-Raw and Reid is all you could hope for in a love story. They, and the drama of the film is supported by an exceptional cast, which of course is supported by an equally exceptional script. Each character is rich and flawed, with their own unique set of problems relative to age, gender, race and class. Belle shows us that we have the power of overcoming our problems ourselves if we have the will to fight them.