Director: Amma Asante Writer: Misan Sagay Actors: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Sarah Gadon Rating: PG Runtime: 104 min
Many period pieces boast stunning visuals, putting detailed sets and intricate costumes on gorgeous display. Since nobody alive today was around to experience these times in the flesh, such movies have the ability to transport an audience right to another world that they would otherwise never have the chance to understand. This accomplishment is no longer enough to result in a successful film, however, due to its apparent prevalence. Nowadays, something more is necessary in order to create a memorable piece of art that spurs admiration and conversation. Fortunately, director Amma Asante’s film Belle (2013) pairs an impressive visual framework with a very important true story and a strong female protagonist whose representation roots itself firmly in one’s mind.
Belle tells the story of real life heroine Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the mixed race daughter of a senior member of the British Royal Navy. Due to her high class, albeit illegitimate, birth, Belle is raised in luxury by her great uncle and his wife (Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson) who love her but treat her as slightly lower in class than her white cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), as the rules of society dictate. Belle’s confidence is as striking as her beauty, and combine to attract the attention of two young men who wish to win her hand. It is one of these suitors, the idealist vicar’s son, who goes on to play a major role in the eventual abolition of slavery in England.
The visuals in Belle are appropriately lush and noteworthy, integrating a viewer right into the world that the film represents. The work deals with undeniably weighty topics, yet remains visually enjoyable throughout, and the detailed sets and costumes only enhance the beauty of the actors and actresses within them. These actors portray their roles well and convincingly, whether their character calls for strength, daftness, or repulsiveness. A lovely soundtrack also serves to highlight moments of high drama and calm during those of tranquility.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is especially impressive as Belle, and although her role may not call for the same level of rawness as that of, say, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, her portrayal of Belle impresses nonetheless. This film is a different sort of look at slavery that may be gentler than said work, but is no less important for that. Belle cannot be compared to films such as 12 Years a Slave simply due to relatable subject matter. Not every film that addresses such a topic need disturb, as every work may adopt a different, effective strategy to tell its story. This film depicts a visually appealing world, using words and narratives to convey its injustices instead.
The film Belle is more than the run-of-the-mill period piece and offers merits that extend far beyond the aesthetic. Here is an inspirational story of courage and strength that many may not be aware is, in fact, based on truth. This film is a very well made piece of art that depicts a highly important historical event, and should be celebrated both for that which it depicts as well as the manner by which it does so.