Family values: Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido and Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth Murray in Belle
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Race and sensibility: Belle by Amma Asante

As the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of an admiral in 18th-century England, Dido Elizabeth Bell’s status is too high to allow her to eat with the servants, yet too low to permit her to join guests for dinner.

It should go down as one of the disgraces of British cinema that it took ten years for the writer-director Amma Asante to get the chance to make a follow-up to her 2004 debut, A Way of Life. That picture, which explored the tensions contributing to a (fictional) racist murder in Cardiff, showed a director capable of keeping her nerve when faced with the dual temptations of melodrama and blame. Each character, no matter how monstrous their actions, could count on being the beneficiary of her insights and her mercy.

Several follow-up projects collapsed during the economic crisis but Asante has finally made a second film. Like her first, Belle is a story of race seen from an oblique angle. Its focus is a real woman whose horizons were narrowed by prejudice but who nevertheless enjoyed a life of greater privilege than some white members of society and even of her own family.

As the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral in late-18th-century England, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) grows up at Kenwood House with her father’s family while he returns to the sea. Her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) talks her through the canvases that gaze imposingly from the walls. The only black subjects in those paintings are subservient to white masters but Dido’s life is more complicated than that. Her status is too high to allow her to eat with the servants, yet too low to permit her to join guests for dinner.

She has a guaranteed income for life from her father, which perversely makes her a lesser priority than her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) when it comes to finding a husband. A man of good breeding, she is told, would be unlikely to marry her. Any other kind of suitor, however, would lower her rank. Her fate is to have fallen between a multitude of stools, racial and economic. She has the wealth and standing of aristocracy and none of the leverage.

Asante (who also worked on the screenplay, though only the original writer, Misan Sagay, is credited) can’t correct history. What she can do is restore some of the power that must have been denied to Dido in life. (Diaries from the Mansfield household formed the spine of the research, while a painting of Dido and Elizabeth was the film’s springboard, but the screenplay is predominantly speculative.)

Dido is made the lynchpin of social transactions that appear to exclude her. When Elizabeth is disparaged by the cad she hopes to marry, the film puts Dido in a position to blow the whistle. When Lord Mansfield, the lord chief justice, presides over the court case involving the Zong slave ship, from which 142 Africans were thrown to their deaths, Dido is the one who discovers incriminating inconsistencies in the ship’s log. She might have come across as a proper Nancy Drew if not for Mbatha-Raw’s screen presence, gentle to the point of faintness but brimming with inner hurt.

She and the film are never better than in the brief scene in which a black maid, Mabel (Bethan Mary-James), notices Dido struggling to brush her hair. Mbatha-Raw has to cram layers of conflicting emotion into the petulant scowl that Dido shoots across the room at Mabel. She is smarting at the servant’s impertinence in staring but she is also curious and embarrassed at the disparity in status between them: two black women kept in their respective places by racism of varying strengths. There is envy, too. After all, Mabel knows from her childhood how to take unruly African hair in hand, which Dido does not. The scene’s genius comes in the next shot, a brisk and brilliant cut to the pair of them in front of a mirror – Dido seated as she is groomed by Mabel, both women wearing girlish slumber-party grins.

Never content to give a scene a single flavour when she can squeeze in two, Asante is careful to show that Elizabeth is the gooseberry in this moment of sisterhood. But then one of the points of Belle, expressed in its central metaphor of the portrait for which the cousins pose, is that someone is always at risk of being painted out of history. The film paints everyone back in.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era