Supposedly based on the real life of a Mulatto woman nicknamed “Belle” who was raised in the English aristocracy around the time of the American Revolution, Belle is in fact a total fraud built up of melodramatic anachronisms and heaving bodices.
Almost nothing in this film is true either to the specific life history of Dido Elizabeth Belle or the period in which it is supposedly set, although Belle’s great-uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (the character played by Tom Wilkerson) appears to have been a genuinely great man.
Let me be clear here: no cinematic “BioPics” (even highly-lauded films like Spielberg’s Lincoln), are perfectly “true.” They can’t be.
“BioPics” are always compressions of complex events told from the specific point-of-view of filmmakers working at a specific moment in history. (In this case, Spielberg released Lincoln just before many Americans were preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of major Civil Rights legislation passed in the mid-1960s.) But to use Stephen Colbert’s word, good cinematic “BioPics” should feel “truthy” so that audiences leave the theatre learning at least a little bit about the times in which the subject lived. This never happens in Belle. The behavior on display in Belle violates everything we know about the times in which Dido Elizabeth Belle and William Murray lived.
I pity the wonderful English actresses (Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson and Penelope Wilton) who have been trapped in this nightmare (although I suppose being paid to be seen on a big screen becomes reward enough for many actresses over 40 these days).
Directed by Amma Asante. Screenplay by Misan Sagay.
Sadly, the worst part for me is that the atrocious score was written by Rachel Portman (who is one of my favorite film composers). When the credits finally rolled and I saw her name, it was a final dagger in my heart 🙁 (JLH: 2/5)
Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. NEVER TO BE SEEN BY RICH.
Top Photo: Gugu Mabatha-Raw as “Belle.”
Bottom Photo: Belle’s ample and often heaving bosom is almost always on display.
Photo Credits: David Appleby
Q: Does Belle pass the Bechdel Test?
At one point Belle’s cousin “Elizabeth Murray” (Sarah Gadon) is bemoaning her fate. Her father, another of the Mansfield family nephews, remarried after her mother’s death, so her father dumped her on Lord & Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkerson and Emily Watson), and left her penniless.
By contrast, Belle’s father “Captain Sir John Lindsay” (Matthew Goode) brought Belle to Mansfield Hall after the death of her mother because he was in military service and therefore unable to care for her. When he dies (still in military service), he leaves Belle a annual legacy of 1,000 pounds. (Jane Austen lovers will recognize this as a fairly significant amount. As Mrs. Bennet crows to Mr. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice: “Mr. Darcy has 10,000 pounds!”)
Tremulous Elizabeth Murray, with no funds to bring into a marriage, is no longer a desirable match, even though Lady Mansfield had assumed that her neighbor “Lady Ashford” (Miranda Richardson) would still be eager to join their two family blood lines together anyway. But suddenly Belle, with 1,000 pounds per year to bring into her marriage, is suitable regardless of color. Noble Belle consoles Elizabeth by offering to share her 1,000 pounds. After all, what need of she for cash? Belle has found L*O*V*E!
Anyway, just as in Jane Austen adaptations, these conversations between the women in Belle may appear to be “about a man” on the surface. But at a deeper level, these conversations are actually about money, power, and the attempt to exert some control over one’s personal destiny regardless of societal constraints. So since I insist that Jane Austen adaptations do pass the Bechdel Test, then I must grant Belle the same courtesy. (Note that I have also made this same argument about Blue Jasmine.)
Neverthless, I still wish that Belle had done a better job of it, by dealing honestly with the complex issues it had taken on rather than pandering so obviously to 21st Century sensibilities.
Also, there is a great deal of wit and irony in Jane Austen (and a fair amount wit and irony in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine of course), but Belle is deadly serious without a single moment of self-conscious leavening. This is where Rachel Portman failed me. She could have added a bit of lightness to the soundtrack, but she didn’t. Her score for Belle is dull, with none of the lovely musical phrases so characteristic of most of her work. (For example, the lyrical theme Portman wrote for The Cider House Rules — a film about abortion!!! — lives on now as the beloved music for TV’s “Pure Michigan” campaign.)
And so it goes…