For a year so tediously bereft of meaty stories about women, it’s nice to find the rare story about a woman and directed by a woman as well.
This week I’m talking about this year’s film, Belle, which did beautifully for its independent studio budget and was a bit of a sleeper hit but deserved as much of an audience as any other biopic.
Based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an illegitimate, mixed raced daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay, the film explores her life growing up in a household that loved her but still had to set strict guidelines on how she lived her life. She’s raised by her aristocratic great uncle and his wife. Belle’s lineage grants her certain privileges, but her status counteracts it by preventing her from certain traditions and luxuries of noble standing. Beginning to feel the wear of a contradictory existence, she’s awoken when she learns of the harsh realities of the slave trade. It’s this new enlightenment that allows her to accept her standing and gives her a push in fighting for change in England.
One of the most remarkable parts of the film is how the script portrays the social and economic status and hardships of Belle and her closest confidant, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is granted a more ideal upbringing – she’s allowed to go out in public, be courted and dine with dinner guests, but because she wasn’t left with a great inheritance she is reliant on any possible suitor. As a woman she isn’t put in a liberal position to find love and marry for it.
Belle, on the other hand, was left with a considerable inheritance and could live off it for life. However, she’s restricted from any social outing due to her being of mixed race. She’s given a hint of freedom, but due to racial prejudice is told she can’t enjoy the life she’d wish to lead. Society believes that no one would wish to marry her and it would be improper to try and act against the notion. Both women are restricted due to their sex and/or their race, and it all adds up ultimately to what they’re worth. It’s what makes their friendship even more touching. Sure, there’s jealousy and bitterness, but overall there is an abundance of love between the two. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sarah Gadon have tangible chemistry.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a revelation in the role and never oversells or underplays her part. She’s trying to find the truth in the real person she’s portraying and she does so beautifully. She’s a deft performer and there’s one scene in particular, where she’s looking at herself in the mirror and seeing what society sees rather than the intelligent, beautiful young woman that she is, and it’s transformative. All of a sudden her walls crumble and she’s a scared young girl whose father left her in a judgmental and often cruel world. However, she also never lets us forget that Belle grew up in a sophisticated home and she always has an air about her as she’s being introduced to realities for the first time.
One of the smaller, interesting bits about the film is the character of John Davinier, played by Sam Reid, who is Belle’s love interest. I don’t know if this is how the part was written or how Reid played him, but John is easily the most emotional character in the film, impassioned to the point of tears over the injustices in the world, misty-eyed when he talks about his great love for Belle, soft-spoken but angry. We don’t often see sensitive souls such as his in films that often prefer the macho hero with a dark past, or the asshole who’s secretly a nice guy. I want more of him and less of the other tropes.
It’s amazing to count how many creative women were on board for this film, from the actors to the director and writer to even the composer, Rachel Portman, who is doing some of the best scores in recent years but is overlooked due to her male contemporaries.
It’s a film that’s a joy to watch. It’s framed beautifully, the costumes are lush and vibrant, and its sets extravagant. It’s a biopic with a twist.