The preface “based on a true story” is enough to strike fear into the heart, thrown around as it is with such wild abandon these days. Amma Asante’s period drama Belle is, to be more precise, based upon a painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of an affair between Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an African slave known as Maria Belle. The film depicts her struggle to find her place within a very structured and unforgiving late 18th century society.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Dido, rescued from poverty by her father (Matthew Goode) and promptly delivered into the care of Lindsay’s uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and his wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) at their Kenwood House estate. Here she is raised as a companion for her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), although Dido soon realises that due to the colour of her skin, the privileges of aristocracy don’t extend quite as far for her.
While Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay attempt to deal with the hypocrisy of class, wealth and race during the salad days of the Industrial Revolution, the liberties taken with Dido’s story result in many characters becoming caricatures instead. Penelope Wilton provides fleeting comic relief as spinster Aunt Mary, and Tom Felton, looking increasingly like a young Jonathan Pryce, channels Draco Malfoy into his performance as caddish nobleman James Ashford.
Belle’s final act recalls the court scenes of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, departing slightly from Dido’s personal journey and touching upon her role in Mansfield’s ruling over the Zong massacre that helped pave the way for Britain’s abolitionists. Indeed, the scenes featuring old hands Wilkinson and Watson are often the most engaging, although Mbatha-Raw radiates throughout as the eponymous star.
Despite some heavy-handed dialogue and a story a little staid in places, fans of Jane Austen period dramas and Downton Abbey will no doubt find much to enjoy in Asante’s second feature film.
Belle is released nationwide on 13th June 2014.
Watch the trailer for Belle here: