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lime Screen Review: Belle

Lime Review - Screen


words by

Cassam Looch

Reporter: Cassam Looch

Based on a painting which still hangs in Kenwood House, this energetic portrayal of a young mixed-race woman in 18th Century England feels like it is entirely accurate even though there are few facts to be had. 

Instead we get a rich story which challenges both the preconceptions we have of the time, and also those some might have of filmmaker Amma Asante. It’s nearly 10 years since the blistering ‘A Way of Life’ that saw Asante make a stunning debut feature film but in the decade since questions have been raised by her lack of follow-up. Is this by choice, or is it due to the inherent problems faced by black filmmakers within the industry?


We’ll leave others to speculate, as we would rather focus on the fantastic film that is set to be released. 


Dido Elizabeth Belle is born of a slave mother and affluent Royal Navy Officer father. She finds herself with an apprehensive great-uncle, who also happens to be the Lord Chief Justice. His fears about bringing a black girl into the family initially centre on his own prejudices, but as he learns to love Dido as one of his own, he becomes more concerned about the problems she will face when she grows up and leaves the family nest. 


Dido spends most of her time with her cousin, Elizabeth, and the pair form a strong bond. As they reach adulthood the pressure mounts to find suitable husbands with Elizabeth finding her own poverty to be as problematic as Dido’s skin colour.


Even in 18th century England, a good man is apparently hard to find. Dido knows she should accept an offer for her hand inmarriage from a seemingly noble family, but her burgeoning political ambitions draw her to another man, John Davinier, who is becoming an outspoken abolitionist. 


What Asante does best is weave in the social issues of the time and make them relevant to today’s audiences. Dido, played quite wonderfully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is never seen as a victim. She is instead a smart, intelligent woman who isn’t going to sit around waiting for a man to decide her fate. Racism is dealt with in a very subtle manner, there aren’t any vile hate-spewers of comic book nature. Instead there is an undercurrent and issues just below the surface. 


In particular, the great swerve of showing that class and gender are just as divisive as race make for a multi-layered story.


The performances are top-notch and the direction by Asante highlight the ability she has. She may well face a tough choice of her own now, continue with the socially aware stories she has brought to the screen already or go for something bigger and more commercial in scale. Either way, we hope it won’t be another ten years in the making. 


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