This is less a film to sit back and enjoy the scenery of (though it is pretty), than one to study and learn from. It’s filled with conviction and deep philosophical dialogue, which takes quite some concentration to take in, though it is rewarding to do so.
I found a lot of sense in it, and much of the dialogue was profound, especially John Davinier’s impassioned speeches:
“Does the law not have a duty [to] progress our morality, not retard it?… Surely as humanity evolves so too must its laws.”– MISAN SAGAY, FOR THE CHARACTER OF JOHN DAVINIER – BELLE (2013)
The visuals were often delightful – which, along with the music and John’s voice having a quality similar to James McAvoy’s as Tom LeFroy, reminded me often of Becoming Jane. This is because despite the beautiful visuals, there is a grave tone and subject matter that is put under the spotlight.
In the case of ‘Belle’, the central themes are not only societal class and sexism, but also race – and while the latter is obviously the main one, I’d say class is of equal importance in Dido’s case. She is of higher status than her adoptive sister, but due to her colour she is beneath her in eligibility, so it’s an interesting situation.
The premise is fascinating – especially as it’s based on a true story – and shown from just the right angle as the issues are laid bare on the surface. They aren’t tiptoed around in a way that would discredit the relevance in our present-day realities (very topical as of late, too).
There is a satisfying ending in both the characters’ stories and the larger-scale problems they were trying to solve, so the film could also be seen without the political context. But watching it in that way would, I think, be to disregard the importance of its message.
Because of the driven focus on the political aspect, much character depth and authenticity is sacrificed. In this way, we don’t know a great deal about the background and personalities of the characters, and quite a bit of the dialogue is unrealistic for a spontaneous conversation – unless the speaker had scripted it beforehand. However, it is powerful and gets its meaning across.
I found that the discussion was pitched just right, unafraid to still make Dido as flawed a protagonist as any other. While I fully sympathised with her, she did go behind the backs of her family and is almost too forceful – considering what they gave her, regardless of background. But this is part of the point, as unfortunately, she is required to go to such extremes in order to have her message heard. She might be ‘lucky’ to be in her situation, loved and looked after despite her origins, but she shouldn’t have to feel ‘lucky’ for that – just as she says to Ashford:
“You will pardon me for wanting a husband who feels ‘forgiveness’ of my bloodline is both unnecessary and without grace.”– Misan Sagay, for the character of Dido Elizabeth Belle – Belle (2013)
There is an important distinction here between how John and Oliver see her: John views her as his equal (in mind – regardless of class and colour), and never shows ‘pity’ for the fact her mother was black – for why should she have to be pitied in that regard?
Dido and John are also aligned in their vision.
Meanwhile, Oliver’s angle is problematic:
“(My brother) cannot overlook your mother’s origins, as I do. Foolish. Why should anyone even pay her regard when your better half has equipped you so well with loveliness and privilege.”– Misan Sagay, for the character of Oliver Ashford
Instead of accepting all her origins, he disregards her mother (implying that, had her father been the same, not a “better half”, Dido would have been of no value to Oliver).
Poor James Norton often seems to play characters who are so bland and slightly questionable in their opinions that they are pushed to the sidelines. Belle agrees to marry him, before going to see John behind his back and then revoking her agreement to marry him, without an apology. But…he kind of had it coming, and I think a lot of her anger was actually directed at his brother (played by a post-Draco Tom Felton).
I felt that the gravitas of hardly knowing her father isn’t fully felt or explained, but Matthew did an excellent job of giving a real presence, kindness and emotion to the character, conveyed only in about 5 minutes of screen-time. As a fan of his, it was worth watching just for that scene alone.
Gugu was excellent in her portrayal of Dido, sympathetic but clever and bold. Sam was charming as John, and I warmed to him immediately. The dialogue between the two was passionate and profound, though I wish we’d had more scenes with them together – getting to know each other as well as focusing on the task at hand.
I was a bit unsure about the portrait (replicating the real-life one) as it almost looks like Elizabeth is pushing Dido away to the side, while herself sitting in the prime central position. But as they are both smiling, it could actually be seen that she’s grabbing her arm to keep her close, breaking that boundary, just as is shown in the scene.
I liked Elizabeth and Dido’s close friendship, and found it interesting that Elizabeth never sees her adoptive sister’s race as an issue – only vaguely implying it in their explosive argument, after which they quickly reconcile, and trust between them is always maintained.
Overall, it was an enjoyable but also philosophically stirring film, based on a true story that should surely be an influence in how we address such matters in our current times, and in the future.
At the moment, Belle isn’t available on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video for UK/US, but it might well be in future. It’s available on DVD and to purchase digitally on Amazon.