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Reviews

Belle

Gareth Higgins

Directed by Amma Asante

Cert PG, 104 mins

One of the most striking images in 12 Years a Slave is when Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon Northrup looks down, sideways, and around before gazing upwards and directly at the audience. It's also one of the most open to interpretation. When Solomon is being beaten into submission (at least physically), when he's being coerced into flogging Patsey, when he's informed of yet another betrayal, there is no doubt about what we are supposed to feel: outrage. When he looks at the audience, certainty is not on the agenda. Is he beseeching the audience for help? Confronting us with our complicity in his position? Inviting us to identify with his suffering? Perhaps all three and more, and the 'us' is also open to interpretation, for the descendants of former slaves and former slave owners both surely shared the experience of shock, education and catharsis the film evokes. Of course the descendants of former slaves and former slaves owners will have been shocked and educated in entirely different ways, and the catharsis of watching your forebear be mistreated and eventually escaping is distinct from that experienced by those of us watching our forebears doing the mistreating. Alas, there is nothing as thoughtfully ambiguous as the extraordinary combination of strength and helplessness conveyed by Ejiofor's gaze in Belle, the British director Amma Asante's heritage film about English aristocratic racism in the 18th century.

It's the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a daughter born out of wedlock to an admiral and a West Indies mother (herself possibly a slave) who was sent to live with her great-uncle, who also happened to be the Lord Chief Justice. She was raised as a free woman in upper class splendour, though not without being subject to racist opprobrium and the equal opportunity discrimination that was applied to people considered 'illegitimate'. The fact that a black woman - the daughter of a possible slave no less - lived among English aristocracy at a time when her mother's community could be subject to being drowned as ballast in overcrowded shipping lanes is of course remarkable. Belle is a person at the heart of an extraordinary story. Belle, however, is not an extraordinary film.

Unfortunately it suffers from the too-typical burdens of English heritage cinema: a focus on landscape, architecture and costumes that seems impressive at first glance, but is ultimately too clean to be real. There's also a pick a card - any card - approach to populating the film with characters: the noble lord with a grumpy exterior but a heart of gold; the sassy distant relative with an eye for matchmaking; the cad played by an actor in danger of typecasting for superficial villainy. There is speechifying in place of plausible conversation (one scene has the reliable Alex Jennings remind Tom Wilkinson of the gravity of his position in parliamentary and legal life, despite the fact that they are old friends who would never actually say such things to each other - at least not in the formula recited here, where Jennings invites Wilkinson to remember that he's the Lord Chief Justice by saying something not too far from 'But my good man, don't you remember you're the Lord Chief Justice?!')

It's a pity, because the true story is compelling, the direction is sincere, and some of the performances are well-balanced, especially Gugu Mbatha-Raw's eponymous protagonist, and Emily Watson continues to prove why she is Britain's best contemporary actress. But the story feels too laid out in advance, and the attempt to weave an element of courtroom thrills (Justice is about to rule on whether or not people can be treated as cargo, paving the way for the abolition of slavery) is too obvious a reminder of other films to seem credible. At the end, Belle is too neatly sewn up to be much more than a blurry photograph of the past, offering less resonance for the legacy of white supremacy today than the story warrants.