Belle’s story could not be told in a more difficult or perilous era.
England’s empire is at its height in the 18th century. Its grandeur is largely bloodstained as the slave trade flourishes under its domain. Belle (later known as Dido, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Free State of Jones) is the daughter of one such slave, but with one notable difference--her father is a captain in the king’s navy. As the film opens, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode, The Imitation Game) enters the slums to find his daughter and bring her to the home of his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson, Selma). It’s a rare bid to ensure her safekeeping, education, and the upbringing that she is entitled to as one of his bloodline.
Now, I really have to commend the writers here for their mad juggling skills. It’s a complicated social situation in many aspects, and so far removed from our contemporary experience of life. But as Dido comes of age, we see that she faces two dangers: her difficult status as a woman of color in aristocratic society, and her position as a woman in general. Since women were considered property, it seems as if Dido escaped one form of ownership only to be sent to another.
There’s one scene of Dido staring at her reflection in the mirror for several moments before she begins to beat and claw at the beautiful, dark skin that signals to society that the rules must be different for her. I cried, people.
Director Amma Asante, in an interview with Dame Magazine, explains:
As a black woman, I wanted to tell a very Jane Austen-esque story. I’m a lover of Jane Austen, I came to her late in life, but in some ways I’m glad that I did because it meant that I came to her with a better understanding of what she does, and how she used wit and her storytelling to really present quite a feminist stance. But, you know, how could I, as a woman of color, tell this story of genteel English life and not acknowledge the fact that what was holding up the economy of that life, of that world, of that culture, came off of the back of the slave trade? So I think that’s the lens that a black female comes to it with—you have that responsibility, you have to tell both stories.
And she does--remarkably so. Dido’s search for belonging and her desire to carve out a place in the world that she can be bold with and proud of is something that we all can relate to. Racial tensions are still inexplicably present, and everyone seems to be struggling to find something to identify as, some tribe to join. But Dido simply wanted to be.
On another note, I really must gush about the costumes. The inspiration for this film came from a portrait of Dido with her cousin, and this inspiration is evident in the stunning way that the entire film resembles a painting. It isn’t just the cinematography (which is brilliant, by the way), it’s the intricacies of each gown, the way their colors perfectly complement the wearers and coordinate with the other costumes and environment of the scenes. I know that I wouldn’t want to wear those gowns every day, but it’s easy to forget when I hear the way they swish in the background.
But I digress.
Belle is a film that, for all its complexity, manages to span the distance of several centuries and still truthfully display the human experience. Dido’s story was as remarkable and inspiring then as it is now. It makes me wonder, if Dido didn’t live in the box society placed her in, why should we?