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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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt