Belle (2013, written by Misan Sagay, directed by Amma Asante)
[12 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]
`It’s always been done this way’ isn’t really a good justification that something is right. Human society is always changing as we learn to restructure ourselves based on our current ideas of how we treat each members of society fairly. But change is always hard, as we see in today’s politics and social issues. Probably because people who have established themselves within the present structure are invested in preserving it.
What better way to demonstrate this than having a movie take place in upper society England during 18th Century. Here everyone aspires to increase their social standing where value is placed depending on wealth, reputation, and skin colour (in that order, for some characters in the film). It is absolutely fascinating to see how these three conditions interplay and influence the actions of the characters. There’s a scene early in a movie where a noblewoman immediately dismisses Belle for her dark skin, but upon finding out that Belle’s significant wealth, she schemes to have her son marry her.
In the film, Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Dido Elizabeth Murray, the daughter of an African slave and a British officer, and grand-niece of Britain’s Lord Chief Justice William Murray (Tom Wilkinson). While she inherits her father’s wealth and social standing, her mere appearance makes her a constant target of judgement and gossip. Naturally she empathises with African slaves and takes an interest in the Zong Massacre case, which Justice Murray is presiding over.
Despite its various characters and subplots, all of them fit together seamlessly to serve the core ideas of the movie. The interplay between Dido and Murray carries the heart of the movie. Wilkinson’s role as chief justice is someone who believes in justice and the law. Though early in the movie he might seem to be the `establishment authority figure’ archetype, we definitely see him as a complex, three-dimensional character.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives an amazing performance as Dido. She has great screen presence and charisma as an elegant lady in polite society whilst coping with the anguish of being `hidden away’ because of her appearance. Earlier this year I’ve seen her in a completely different role as a pop-star in Beyond the Lights. There is no doubt that she is a versatile and talented actress.
I really like how the story starts from following Dido and her life and eventually makes us project outward to become emotionally invested in her heritage and people as it ties to the Zong Massacre. The practices and prejudices of British society during that time period was established and depicted well such that the stakes and outcomes of various plotlines are clear. In other words, the `world-building’ was set up pretty well in this movie.
At the moment, this might be my favourite movie among the 12 I’ve seen for #52FilmsByWomen so far. This and Wadjda. Even counting all other movies beyond #52.