No bodices seem to have been harmed, much less ripped, during the making of “Belle,” a period film at once sweeping and intimate, about an 18th-century Englishwoman who transcends her historical moment. Even so, peekaboo bosoms tremble throughout the movie amid the rustle of luxurious gowns and the gasps of polite company as conventions are crushed underfoot. Melodramatic and grounded in history, “Belle” is enough of an old-fashioned entertainment that it could have been made in classic Hollywood. Well, except for one little thing that would have probably given old studio suits apoplexy: The movie’s prettily flouncing title character is biracial.
You meet her as a child, just as she’s being taken by her father, a navy captain, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), from some shadowy mystery hovel to a large country manor. There, in an elegantly appointed room, the kind that announces the refinement of its inhabitants and whispers their entitlement, Sir John formally claims the child as his own and promptly hands her over to his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson, very good), and Lady Mansfield (a dry, funny Emily Watson). The lord and lady keep their lips, necks and manners stiff, but take the girl in and raise her as their own – or almost. Soon she’s laughing in the garden, and then she’s a genteel beauty (a fine Gugu Mbatha-Raw) facing life as a black woman in a slave-trading country.
She’s based on Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804), the daughter of an African woman, Maria Bell, who was probably enslaved and maybe captured off a ship by Sir John. The details of Bell’s life are murky, but when Dido was young, Sir John took her to Lord Mansfield, who raised her alongside another grandniece, Elizabeth Murray (played by a strong Sarah Gadon).
An unusual painting of her and Elizabeth that shows the women smiling side by side on a terrace – both in silk gowns and pearls, and staring directly at us – suggests that there was much more to Dido. The double portrait, often attributed to Johann Zoffany, now hangs in Scone Palace in Scotland but was painted at Kenwood House in Hampstead, England, where Dido lived for the first 30 or so years of her life. It’s an exciting image because she wasn’t painted in a traditional subservient pose but instead assumes an almost – if not quite – equal place with her cousin on the canvas. While Elizabeth stands as still as a vase, Dido seems to have been, evocatively, captured in midflight.
The vivaciousness of Dido’s image doesn’t always come through in the movie portrait, which the director, Amma Asante, has created in the Merchant-Ivory school of serious, tasteful entertainments. It’s easy to mock such films, with their pretty manners and people, but, at their best, they open a door onto an old world that is sometimes more fragile, brittle, imperiled and considerably more complex than its sumptuous trappings at first suggest. Likewise here, Dido and her cousin, both cosseted and corseted, exist in near-pastoral harmony, yet their lives are nowhere as carefree as they seem. Elizabeth has a complicated history and needs, much like a Jane Austen heroine, to marry to ensure her future. And while Dido may be one of the family, she’s also sometimes kept segregated.
Written by Misan Sagay, “Belle” tracks its heroine’s dawning awareness of both her own social, political and legal position and that of the black slaves who, initially, exist for her only as abstractions. Her education comes through her uncle, the Lord Chief Justice, who has to decide on a horribly real case involving the Zong slave ship, as well as from an amusingly dashing suitor, John Davinier (Sam Reid).
The movie plays with the historical record for dramatic effect, as is often the case when the past is disinterred for entertainment, and its realism at times groans under the weight of too many passionate speeches. Yet the weave of the personal and the political finally proves as irresistible as it is moving, partly because it has been drawn from extraordinary life.