Amma Asante’s Belle shown at City Screen York renders the script’s emphasis on conflicting, and at times hypocritical, attitudes towards the slave trade explicit from the start. Set in the grounds of Kenwood House in Hampstead, evocative scenes of kinship, such as the childhood bond between the mixed-race illegitimate Dido Elizabeth Belle with her father, and her friendship with a legitimate yet penniless cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, stand in stark contrast to the prejudice she faces against ‘mulattos’ in England as she grows up, despite her education and unusual status as a free gentlewoman.
As Belle seeks to forge a life the inseparable pair are introduced to a host of both suitable and inappropriate suitors. A sense of repulsion against those of negro descent is made cruelly clear by James Ashford, portrayed by Tom Felton (Harry Potter fans may recognise him as the sneering Draco Malfoy), who frowns upon his brother Oliver’s attachment to her. “One samples it in the cotton fields of the Indies,” he scoffs, “then finds a pure English rose to decorate one’s home.” Gugu-Mbatha-Raw’s performance of Belle is a feat for the ascending RADA actress who provides much needed glamour and delivers raw performance to an often neglected period of history. A scene in which she is pictured physically scratching at her own skin is particularly memorable.
The film is loosely based on a 1779 painting of Belle and Lady Elizabeth, commissioned by their uncle William Murray, Lord Chief Justice of England. The symbolism of the work is played upon in the film. Rather than picturing Belle as subservient in the composition, as do most contemporary works illustrating the relationship between races, this painting shows Belle smiling, strong, and leading the way – an image which corresponds with the her representation in the film as a rebel and a forerunner.
Aside from the focus on personal lives and stories touched by the slave trade, this film also deals with the bigger issues. Much of the plot is driven by the controversial case of the Zong ship, and the disputed questions of the time: Should human life be insurable as cargo? Are women but the property of men? Are all born equal? Is idealism merely naïve?