“The world is a devastating place. You must learn to protect your emotions to prevent matters … from devastating you.” Lord Mansfield in Belle
That quote sums up the powerful nature of Belle, the first in four films I’ll be seeing as part of an Indie Film Series. Belle is based on the fascinating true story of a mixed race daughter, born out of wedlock, and raised alongside another niece, by her aristocratic uncle in 18th century England.
The greatness of the film comes in its intricate plotting, and in the parallels drawn between gender and race. Author Jane Austen dealt with the position of women in English society through the use of dry humor, though the rage at a young woman being forced into marriage in order to secure a safe future was still present. In Belle however, there is no satire to soften the blow. Matters become complicated when the girls become of age to be courted and wed.
Tom Wilkinson has surpassed himself as Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the British courts, plays the exasperated father figure of both nieces with the correct touches of humor and warmth. As a judge, he projects the inner conflicts of a man with the weight of the entire economic system on his shoulders. The viewer can see him try to deflect from the strong-arming of local politicians, who want to ensure that the presence of the “mulatto” in his house will not affect his ruling on the case. Their relationship forces him to examine his own conscience regarding slavery and human rights, influencing a decision in his court that changes the future of England.
As Elizabeth, Gadon takes what could have been a very stereotypical role of the flighty, romantic English girl, and brings a deep sense of hurt to it. Having been left with her uncle after her new stepmother successfully wrote her out of her father’s will, Elizabeth’s cheery exterior hides an emotionally hurt young girl.
And finally, there is Mbatha-Raw. As Dido, the Belle that drives the film, you will deeply feel her frustration as a woman, and as a person of color. As a viewer I was carried away by her passionate belief that things should not (could not) remain the status quo. The camera was able to beautifully capture her ease with her character, the independent-minded heroine could stand toe-to-toe with the multiple incarnations of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett.
I found the film to be a uniquely gripping and moving film on many levels. Beyond the attention to historical detail and breathtaking cinematography, I was emotionally invested in all parts of the story to the point that I wanted to yell at that characters for their mistakes and sobbing with empathy when they were hurt. I expect this film will receive plenty of recognition and develop strong word of mouth because it richly deserves it. It’s intelligent, inspirational and one of the best examples of what truly outstanding movies can offer.
If Belle is playing in your area don’t let it pass you by.