May 20, 2014

British director Amma Asante makes big steps with new period piece Belle

It looks like a fairytale and feels like a fairytale, but Amma Asante’s Belle is no Cinderella story—it is a true story. The title refers to Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman named Maria Belle, who became an incredibly influential figure in mid–18th century England.

Director Amma Asante is relatively unknown in the U.S., but has worked extensively in British television and film both behind and in front of the camera, acting in the series Grange Hill and directing 2004’s A Way of Life. With Belle, Asante hopes to break through to American audiences permanently.

The film takes us back to a period of time—and this is where your world history class comes in handy—where the slave trade and slavery were part of everyday life. And the story of Dido is a remarkable romance because it exists under the shackles and the savagery of slavery. Such circumstances are fresh in movie goers’ minds due to the popularity of recent Academy Award–winning films Django Unchained (2012) and the 12 Years A Slave (2013).

As an heiress to a fortune, Dido Belle, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, occupies a strange place in such oppressive times. She’s well-educated, gracious, and regal from being in the care of William Murray (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson), who were soon to become first earl and lady of Mansfield, one of the long-established peerages of Britain. Though Dido is enveloped in the world of aristocratic duties, we’re left with the question: Where does she stand in this intolerant society?

Probing deep into the social differences that transcend skin color, Belle is as inspiring as Lincoln (2012), and Mbatha-Raw is easily as talented as Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Asante and writer Misan Sagay were profoundly inspired by Dido’s story. Her actions sank slave trade ships and set the stage for the Abolitionist movement, thanks in part to the help of her uncle, the lord chief justice of the King’s Bench, reportedly the second most powerful position in Britain (next to the King). And, evocative of Pride and Prejudice (2005), there’s the dashing and diligent Frenchman John Davinier (Sam Reid), who did not only put his heart on his sleeve, but also rolled them up for the appeal of anti-slavery; he is a legal apprentice of Lord Mansfield, and later laid eyes on and loved unconditionally the beguiling Dido Belle.

This film could have won top honors at last year’s Academy Awards by a mile, even with an unusually diverse Best Picture ballot. Its veiled presentation of slave-era oppression is beautifully done. Still, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is to heartwrenching what Amma Asante’s Belle is to heartwarming, and a heart warmed is better than a heart wrenched. We want people to feel not only pity for the oppressed but true empathy as well.