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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE - 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

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