It’s a bad sign when the second-billed star of a film exists permanently within the first three minutes. It’s a worse sign when a movie that is ostensibly about the abolishment of slavery doesn’t bother to depict a single slave, or any of the horrors associated with slavery. So it goes with Belle, a simpering British rom-com in the tradition of Love Actually, masquerading as a costume drama, parading around as a commentary on the value of human life and the triumph of the human spirit.
Belle, based on the true story of an 18th-century British woman named Dido Elizabeth Belle, tells the story of the daughter of a slave and a British Navy admiral raised by her great-uncle, an earl and judge. Dido’s growing awareness of her own limitations in society runs parallel to some of the legal developments in English law precipitating the abolishment of slavery. But that’s as far as we get when the film comes to examining the realities of slavery. Dido’s family shelters her from learning about the controversial legal case du jour, in which slave traders are suing insurers for a payout after murdering ill slaves on board ships to collect insurance money.
And so director Amma Asante shelters us, never letting us see what the characters are really debating. The closest we get to seeing slavery is a handful of oil paintings in which slaves are depicted as looking awestruck up at their owners, who smile down upon them beatifically. Uncomfortable, yes, but hardly challenging to the audience. Belle asks very little of the viewer, and consequently, we get little in return. This is a film for people who said they wanted to see 12 Years a Slave because they felt like it would make them seem smart, but didn’t want to risk any discomfort.
However, it’s hard not to be made uncomfortable by the clumsy, awkward cinematography. Characters repeatedly come in and out of focus, and the framing is so jumpy the viewer half expects to see a boom mic drop down into view. The film amounts to an indexed pastiche of every type of shot a film student is required to execute in a final project. And much like a student film, there are glaring historical inaccuracies that take the viewer right out of the story, such as the presentation of an engagement ring (a modern convention) and anachronistic typefaces on political pamphlets.
Like most visual elements in the film, the paintings depicting slaves are part of a heavy-handed metaphor: Dido herself must sit for a family portrait with her cousin and best friend, though she’s afraid to be portrayed as less than equal in her family’s eyes. In the end, they are painted together, as equals. And eventually, Dido finds her intellectual match in life and love. Of course, the Atlantic slave trade as it’s discussed within the film would go on to exist for another hundred years. But that’s irrelevant in this film where the good guy gets the good girl and everyone lives happily ever after.
The saving grace of the film is its star, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, making her film debut after a string of TV appearances, including Dr. Who. She does what she can with a limited script, bringing more emotion to her character than the undeserving script requires. All the dialogue is expository, so the audience is given little room to assess motivations. Instead, Asante shoves the viewer from room to room as if the price of a movie ticket paid was for a colonial house and garden tour. There is no opportunity to witness a budding romance between Dido and her central love interest; they are both presented as uncomplicated and one-dimensional. For a film that’s seeking to add gravitas to a saccharine, predictable love story by tackling a historical event, we should be able to expect some semblance of real storytelling around the central characters, but even that seems too much to ask.