Belle has everything going for it – except for a decent soundtrack or script or plot or acting

See the painting that inspired this 18th century, interracial family drama, and skip the flimsy movie

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

14 June 2014

8:00 AM


12A, Nationwide

Belle is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of a sea captain and his African slave mistress, who was brought up as a free gentlewoman by her great uncle, Lord Mansfield, at Kenwood House, Hampstead, in the 18th century. How fascinating, you might think. You just can’t mess up with a story like this, you might also think. It has everything going for it; a costume drama fulfilling all our beloved Jane Austen tropes (class, gender, etc.) with the added charge of race. How could it go wrong? Alas, all too easily. This is disappointingly lifeless, and shallow, and the soundtrack! So many violins, you’ll leave feeling as if you’ve been quite violently smacked around the head with one. Repeatedly.

This is written by Misan Sagay, who was inspired after seeing Johann Zoffany’s painting of Dido with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, which now belongs to the current Lord Mansfield, and hangs in Scone Palace, Scotland. This is a painting I have been familiar with since childhood as I grew up near Kenwood, and have just always known about it somehow. I can recall it from memory. There is Elizabeth, who is white and attired in a pink frothy frock, gazing out passively while, just to the right, stands Dido, who is carrying exotic fruit, wearing a turban adorned with a feather, and has a vivacious glint in her eye. The pair are presented as equals, with Elizabeth laying an affectionate hand on Dido’s waist. I do not think you can look at this painting without asking the questions Sagay must have asked: who was Dido? How was she treated, as a black woman in high society? What became of her? Because so little is actually known, much of this film is conjecture, but it is not high-class, believable conjecture. It is fluffy, formulaic conjecture, with violins.

Fretting about marriage: Sarah Gadon (Elizabeth) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Dido)

Directed by Amma Asante, this opens as Dido’s father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), deposits Dido at Kenwood when she is six years old, her mother having died. The household, at that time, consisted of Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), a maiden aunt (Penelope Wilton, who seems to have been playing maiden aunts since for ever) and a grand-niece, Elizabeth, who is Belle’s age. The family are initially discombobulated. ‘She is black!,’ says the aunt. ‘She is my blood,’ says Lindsay. ‘But she is black,’ protests Lady Mansfield. However, they come to love her, affording her the same privileges as Elizabeth, as far as possible.

The little girls become young women, as played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Dido) and Sarah Gadon (Elizabeth), and as close as the Bennett sisters, on whom they have obviously been modelled. But Dido’s colour cannot be overlooked. She cannot, for example, dine with the family when guests are present. We know this because, as Dido says to Lady Mansfield: ‘How can I be too high of rank to dine with the servants, but too low of rank to dine with my own family?’ The script is laden with such expositionary clangers; with everyone telling rather than showing, pointing out exactly how the land lies to those who would know. This is not a subtly textured or layered film, in other words. In fact, there are more petticoats of exposition in this than there are actual petticoats, and there are many, many of those.

The women fret about their marriage prospects and, even though Dido becomes an heiress after her father dies, she is still considered less marriageable than her white penniless cousin. But the racism is never tackled convincingly, or even seriously. There is one horrible moment, but it’s handled with such ludicrous clumsiness I’m not sure it counts. Everything is laid on thick, including a parallel plot concerning the abolition of slavery.

Lord Mansfield, in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice, is about to rule on the Zong massacre, whereby a ship’s crew has been accused of deliberately drowning their cargo of slaves to claim the insurance. Dido, together with John Davinier (Sam Reid), a swooningly dishy vicar’s son with impassioned anti-slavery views, seek to influence the case in ways that seem as false as they actually are. (There was a Davinier, but he was none of the things this film says he is.) Also, Dido and Davinier hate each other when they first meet, so I think we always know where that is going. Also, Lady Mansfield ticks off Lord Mansfield for not being the man she married, for not having fire in his belly any more, and I think we always know where that is going too.

Aside from a cameo by Miranda Richardson, which adds some vim, no character properly comes to life. Even the usually dependable Wilkinson seems leaden — he just ponders everything in a kindly way — while Mbatha-Raw always seems on the verge of tears, as those violins swell. You can see the film or not — makes no difference to me — but, if I were you, I’d opt for the painting instead. It’s better. And more interesting, too.

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  • MikeF

    Almost every dramatised representation of ‘black’ people interacting with ‘white’ people now follows a rigid formula – whites for the most part nasty and ‘racist’, blacks noble and enlightened. It is actually just another form of stereotyping and one thing it never is is ‘dramatic’.

    • Saleemah Mannsur

      You did not ‘see’ the film – there was only ‘one’ nasty person in the film & the only other ‘black’ person with lines was the kindest person. This is a true story – told from writings from the period. 90% if the white people in this film were loving to Belle. You’re not here to critique a film, yet – whine over some other issue not relative to ‘this’ story! Shame.

    • Theodore

      Ahhh an agenda. It’s obvious you hadn’t watched the film when you made your comment or really read the background or review of this film. If you had you know that Belle’s story is not a stereotype of a white person being “nasty and racist” to a noble black person. But instead the tale of the daughter of an African slave being raised and well loved by her British family.

  • Geoffrey Hastwell

    Sorry, Deborah – with respect, I must differ with you.
    Indeed, to resort to cliche – were we at the same film….?! In your notice you seem determined to highlight ‘deficiencies’ and downplay merit. Why on earth do you do this?
    OK, violins aren’t your favourite film score instrument…. And yes, the plot may well be predictable to you……
    The REA Davinier might not have been ‘a hunk’….
    So what? The many major attributes of ‘Belle’, from sub-text to script to camera-work to subtle examination of what may have been a pivotal saga in ending slavery far overrides fairly minor faults such as such as using a cast of ‘hunks’, male or female.
    So, ‘now as I’m leavin’… (to quote a favourite singer of mine) but not yet ‘weary as hell’, I say to readers of our respective pieces – I recommend ‘Belle’ very, very much…… Don’t trust us though – check the film for yourself!

  • Keith Richard Collins

    I have to say that Deborah’s comments about this lovely film is beyond me,of course we are all entitled to our opinions but i think its one of the most atrocious and unjust review of a film i have ever read,the acting was first class,filmed beautifully and the soundtrack sounded incredible with those violins,i guess this is just not Deborah’s sort of film,she probably slated 12 years a slave as well which was a classic,enough said,i recommend this film so highly and you should go and see it unless you don’t like violins,lol.

    • Frank Rispin

      Who is this Deborah. Great film.loved it where did you find this , lousy film critic?

    • Ian Turnbull

      Keep the film. Get rid of Deborah.

  • Keith Richard Collins

    Ps Deborah,telling people to opt for the painting instead of seeing the film,what a joke statement to make,i certainly wont be buying The Spectator if Deborah is the normal standard of reviewer who doesnt have a clue or understand period dramas.

  • Saleemah Mannsur

    Deborah Ross, there is a truth to this story, which you refuse to acknowledge and its not just all tied up in a painting! If I told you I grew up a block from the White House – does that mean I know about stories happening within its walls?! No. You decided you didn’t like the story line or color line or color of the director… & this girl could just not be a part of ‘this’ story & certainly crying is out of the question… since everyone knows that colored girls have so soul! And, the racism is all over this story, however within this delicate ‘time period’ it was handled as one would expect. Unless you think she should’ve taken it to the streets – fists in the air.
    You’ve decided to write this negative diatribe – and I’m reading ‘well’ between your lines & see your hate. I see why you don’t post a picture of ‘yourself’ anywhere. We’d critique it. If there are seats at the Spectator… go take turns sitting in all of them… one-at-a-time.

  • Annie Towne

    This is a truly terrible movie, which is too bad, as the bright-eyed girl in that painting surely deserved better. The score nearly drove me mad, too, and Draco Malfoy playing himself was hilarious (and somewhat diverting). I hope to see more of Mbatha-Raw, though; she was delightful.

  • Theodore

    Don’t take any notice of Deb’s review. Her disparaging assessment is silly parody of scathing critic and a teeny weeny bit too disparaging, to the point where it tips over to become disingenuous. Something’s irked her subconscious to leak all this discouragement. Perhaps it is Ms Mbatha Raw’s devastating beauty. Or perhaps it’s straight up anhedonia. Who knows!

    Belle is a witty engaging Austenesque drama (hence Deb’s insincerity regards the predictably) with good performances from a great ensemble cast. The film deals with race, class and gender politics in an evenly paced and entertaining film. As for Academy Award Winner Ms Portman’s score and the violins? Well some of us love that kind of thing in our costume dramas. Our idea of enjoyment.