Bafta-winning director Amma Asante tells Tara Brady about bringing Belle to the big screen,
This sumptuous costume drama is also a provocative depiction of race relations in the days of Jane Austen, writes Tara Brady
“I do think we bring something different to the lens. I hope you can see that in this film. Because I want to celebrate being a woman”
complicated standing in society was negotiated at a time when her protector was called to rule on the legitimacy of the slave trade.
Belle takes a landmark 1781 ruling by the Lord Chief Justice (essayed in the film by Tom Wilkinson) as its historical framework. The brutal case concerned the Zong, a crowded slave ship which threw 142 men overboard en route to Jamaica, so that the captain might claim insurance.
“One of the wonderful things about this story is that I didn’t have to think about weighty themes,” says Asante. They are already there. The circumstances are extraordinary. They are a gift for any film-maker.”
The director subtly compares and contrasts the slavitude faced by 18th-century women and the slavitude faced by kidnapped Africans. Belle’s situation is tricky: she is a lady of society but she is equally kept away from that society.
“She lives a life of extraordinary privilege. But I didn’t want her to look spoiled when she asks for more. She is just asking for very basic human rights. She’s in an impossible position. She doesn’t look anything like her relatives. And she’s trying to find her voice at a time when women weren’t supposed to speak.”
It’s impossible not to wonder about the timing. Since 2012 we’ve seen three major and radically different ‘slave movies’: Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and now, Amma Asante’s Belle.
“Partly it’s a zeitgeist thing. Zeitgeist rules film. Ten years ago every other movie seemed to come from Africa: Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda, The Constant Gardener. Because that was a trend. But it is interesting that we were all working on these movies at the same time without knowing anything about the other projects. I can’t speak for Django. But I think Belle and 12 Years a Slave reflect that film-makers of colour want to put people of colour at the heart of their movie. We want to dramatise things that are relevant to our history, the subjects that are close to us. These are untold histories. Nobody else has chosen to make a movie from Solomon’s story or from Dido’s story before. Finally we can.” For Asante, the film began with a postcard of a 1779 painting depicting Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825). It’s an extraordinary image, one that rips up the contemporary rulebook on representation.
“It’s so obviously different from other 18th- century portraits,” says Amma. “A person of colour was usually used as a status symbol in paintings, an expression of the wealth of their Caucasian master. Here the person a colour is the one looking out from the painting. Everything draws your eye to her. It’s Elizabeth reaching out to Dido.”
The evolution of the movie has been complicated. Belle’s screenplay is, following legal wrangling, is credited to Misan Sagay, an Anglo-Nigerian writer who developed the project for HBO but had to abandon it due to ill health. Asante spent four years on the screenplay, working from the postcard that belle’s producer Damian Lewis sent her.
“I wanted to reflect a world that we were familiar with, the same world we know well through Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility. But this world is also unfamiliar because it immediately has this character we weren’t expecting it find in a very strong position. I took everything from the painting. Because once I got over the shock of seeing a person of colour in expensive jewels and beautiful silks. And wearing a dress that is a little bit more fashionable her cousin’s dress. I had so many questions. Who commissioned this painting? Was there a mother in this house? Because these children are loved. This mother has stood up to convention.”
The finished film, not unlike an Austen novel, buries larger issues of race and gender in handsome period details and a love story between Belle’s eponymous heroine (as played by the remarkable Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and a dashing anti-slavery lawyer (Sam Reid). A remarkable roll-call of top British thesps – Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, Tom Felton – round off a quality cast.
“I can’t tell you how excited I was when we finalised the cast list,” laughs Asante. “It has been an amazing journey. But that was a special moment.”
Expect many more to follow. Are the bookies taking Oscar bets, yet?
BELLE ★★★★ Directed by Amma Asante. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton PG cert, 105 min Our American chums have gone nuts for Belle. Who can blame them? Corsets and big houses and heaving bosoms? Oh, my, if it isn’t everything we’ve come to love about British costume drama. A central romance sees two of the planet’s most beautiful people (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid) exchange meaningful glances and longing sighs. A coterie of matriarchs (concerned mother Emily Watson, faithful maiden aunt Penelope Wilton) provide engaging period banter about husbands and dowries. Celebrated British actors lurk in every corner.
It’s all very Jane Austen, in every sense: hidden in the silky folds is a wealth of social critique and historical detail. Dido Elizabeth Belle, the film’s heroine, was Britain’s first aristocrat of colour. Born some 15 years before the author of Pride and Prejudice, Dido suffers the same anxieties that dominate the lives of various Dashwoods and Bennets. The issue of race adds further complications.
As a child, Dido’s aristocratic naval father (Matthew Goode) leaves her in the care of his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. As a young woman, essayed by the remarkable Gugu M’batha-Raw, Dido lives a strange half-life. She may not sit with guests at family dinners, but she may join the ladies afterwards. She enjoys the constant companionship of her adopted sister, Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Godon), although only one of them will make a society debut.
Against all odds, Dido does make an impression on an idealistic young abolitionist (Reid). But will such a relationship be permitted? And can Dido sway her uncle as he deliberates on a landmark slavery case?
The camera loves Gugu MbathaRaw’s Dido, and so it should. Her protestations against lowly social status register as delicate quivers and sharp intakes of breath. Director Amma Asante and cinematographer Ben Smithard bathe their star in golden light from close angles.
It’s typical of the film’s swoon effect: everything on screen is sumptuous. But there are larger questions about slavery and race and gender embroidered into every exchange and gesture.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and
Sarah Gadon in Belle. Below: Director Amma Asante
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle