Belle is a British period drama, focusing on the extraordinary story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the mixed race, illegitimate daughter of a British aristocrat, raised within his upper class family in the 1700s and the unusual paths her life took.
Dido ‘Belle’ Lindsay loses her African mother while very young and is fetched by her father, a high-ranking sailor, while still a child. Unable to care for her, Lindsay leaves Dido with his uncle and family, asking that they raise her and provide her with every benefit afforded to her as his daughter. Dido grows up intelligent, elegant and beautiful but the question of her background and colour of her skin lead to consternation and cruelty as she grows up. She begins to question her upbringing and identity, looking to carve a new role for herself within society and to finally feel truly free.
What’s interesting about Belle as a film, is it carries all the hallmarks of a classic period drama: forbidden love, sumptuous costumes, careful study of the manners of the time, while also managing to be a reflection on politics, racism, feminism and self-identity and expression.
First up: I absolutely loved Belle. In fact, when it was over, I turned to my friend and told her I wanted to watch it straight over again. Amma Asante has crafted a beautiful, moving period drama that asks questions of British history through the eyes of an extraordinary woman. Gugu Mbatha-Raw was luminous as Dido, filling up the screen with a lively presence. She created a character that was intelligent, curious, passionate and bold. Her face was wonderfully expressive and so gorgeous (she wore hardly a scrap of make-up throughout). Though everyone was dressed beautifully, Dido’s clothes seemed especially exquisite, as if to make Mbatha-Raw shimmer even more. She effectively conveyed Dido’s inner conflicts, her growing resolve and appreciation for her heritage and history. The scene where she examines herself in the mirror was particularly affecting, as was the moment she glimpses a painting of herself.
Belle was about Dido finding her place as both a woman and as an outsider in her community. The film allowed her to find a purpose for herself in the world and carve a role for herself as an individual.There was a sweet romance at the centre of the story, but it felt secondary to Dido’s own development and taking control of her fate. Undoubtedly the film had to be a bit creative, as so little is known about the real Dido, but the life they breathe into her and the agency the character is given is both inspiring and engaging. An exemplary costume drama and examination of one woman’s indomitable spirit.