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.