Film Review: “Belle”

This is my latest article published by the wonderful ladies at The Well Written Woman:

I have long awaited this film. When the movie opened in 2013, it was showing nowhere near where I lived except in a small art-house theater, which I didn’t realize until after it had already closed. My wonderful husband bought it for me for Christmas, however, and I am only now getting around to watching it. Belle is inspired by the 1779 painting of a young mixed-race woman seated with her cousin, identified as the Lady Elizabeth Murray. It is brilliantly cast, sumptuously costumed, and emotionally charged.

Belle_posterDido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay was born of a nobleman and a slave of whom little is known. The story this film tells is that of Dido as she and her cousin begin the fraught journey into society and marriage and finding their place in the world. For Dido, it is compounded by her uncle/adoptive father’s soon-coming decision in the case of the Zong massacre, which, as passionate young lawyer-to-be Mr. Davinier asserts, could pave the way for a very change in law regarding slavery and its abolition.

Something that struck me deeply was a scene at an early segment of the film, after Dido has learned of a public (and highly publicized) case before the Supreme Court in which the captain of a ship, the Zong, is trying to gain payment from his insurers for a cargo of slaves whom he threw overboard. Dido sits before her toilette table, looking at herself in the mirrors, crying, she begins to rub and scratch at her skin as if she might rub away her mocha color.

As a black woman myself, I have never found myself to be in a position of crying over my skin. I admit, as a child, I wished for fair skin and blonde hair, to be considered beautiful by boys, yes, but also in general, outside of the familial good opinion of my parents. But I have never felt so disregarded, so disdained for naught more than my coloring that I have ever actually wept over being who I am. To picture myself in such a position seems beyond the realm of even my imagination. For the record, though, that particular instance is the only memory I have of feeling that particular inferiority.

Dido’s reaction strikes me as nothing short of realistic, however, having grown up with her family to whom her color meant nothing personally but who, when faced with the society of which they were a part, were still bound by the classist and racist mores and rules that kept her a veritable secret and then an object of amusement and scorn.

Dido faces a gauntlet on many sides, venom, fascination, and sideshow curiosity layered beneath social politesse, but no less obvious to all who witness it. She states at one point to Mr. Davinier that she is struck by the thought that she is free twice over – free from slavery and free from poverty, having inherited her father’s fortune upon his death. She is a woman of independent means and, therefore, most would say, given the freedom to marry where she pleases. Even so, Dido struggles to find the freedom to just be – to be herself and all that means without apology and to accept herself without shame. And so Dido searches and fights and argues for justice as her father prepares to render his decision in the Zong case.

I was pleased with the fire that Gugu Mbatha-Raw brought to the character of Dido, a young woman raised with all the knowledge, propriety, and breeding of her rank and determined to live the life she deserved regardless of how others might regard her for the color of her skin. The cast is all talent as she is joined by Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Tom Felton, and Emily Watson. This film is an enjoyable period piece with strong undertones of social consciousness and justice and stood as an excellent precursor to the next film on my docket: 12 Years a Slave.

Postscript: There is more information about the true story to be found here:


Picking Apart the ‘Literary Princess’

On the way home from lunch, I sang Disney songs to my daughter as I drove. When “Belle” from Beauty & the Beast came on, I found myself pondering the lyrics of the song, which I had never really considered before. Not really. Belle puts down her life in this “poor, provincial town”, which I consider quite unfair now.

I would dare say that she is not only dreaming of “something more” but she does so because she is bored. How can one possibly be bored in her day and time? But then I realized something. Not once throughout the film does Belle show any particular skill, aside from attracting birds like Snow White and reading. She doesn’t cook, she doesn’t clean, though might assume she does so for her father. However, we see no evidence of it. For all we know, it’s Maurice who does the cooking and cleaning, as well as the inventing, in their house. (And just how do they make the money they need to survive if her father cannot sell his inventions?) She bemoans her provincial life, though almost all I see throughout her trip through the village are folks who work hard at whatever it is they do: the baker, the farmers and vendors at market, the barber, the milliner, the bookseller. What does Belle do? Wander the village and purportedly read all day, if she finishes books as quickly as she claims. By the way, being able to read in and of itself in this time period, THAT took time and tutelage and position. And yet she cries out, “There must be more than this provincial life!” However, the fact of the matter is that she seems to have it easiest of anyone in town aside from, forgive me, Gaston.

Belle was always my favorite ‘princess’ growing up because she loved to read so much. In my mind, I had never seen a heroine so like me. But now that I think about it in-depth, her character is a sort of social double-standard. I do envy Belle her version of a “provincial life”. I should dearly love to be able to sit around and read all day long and then run into the village and trade out books from the book store that I never had to pay for. I will admit that I have always romanticized the idyllic life, though I know that my imaginings of it are more like Marie Anoinette’s little manor, the Petit Trianon, or as sweet and simple as Buttercup’s farm in The Princess Bride or even the Shire. And Belle’s little village life that she so despises and wishes to get away from is nothing if not idyllic.

So let’s think about this. Belle goes from a discontent lower-middle-class (though a head above just about everyone else around her) village girl who wails that she wants “adventure in the great wide somewhere”, to a settled, pampered princess in a castle that, no doubt, now survives and thrives on the taxes of the surrounding villages, including the one where she lived. They do have a HUMAN staff to feed, clothe, and pay wages to now, after all, don’t they? But, in all of this, I should have liked to see her boil a kettle for her own cup of tea just once. A woman who can take care of herself; now that’s inspiring.