Putting history on the right track is a perfectly understandable movie motivation, but it’s dramatically tricky. Once you step into the past with the determination to correct it, you’ve already left one foot in the present, and history becomes hindsight.
When it comes to the proper place of race relations in movies, the past few years have showcased a fascinating array of rearward projection strategies, including the revenge western wish-fulfillment of Django Unchained, the waking nightmare of 12 Years a Slave and the backroom legislative nail-biting of Lincoln.
It’s this last movie that Amma Asante’s Belle most resembles, but far less for Steven Spielberg’s vivid evocation of a lived-in past than for a determination to point the past toward an enlightened present. The story, credited at the opening as “true,” goes like this: In mid-18th-century Britain, a young girl of mixed race is left by her seafaring, battle-bound father (Matthew Goode) to be raised by his aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson).
Growing up black and privileged in the vast Mansfield manse, the young woman named Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) nevertheless becomes gradually aware of a great injustice lurking behind all those plush curtains and looming family portraits. As she wanders the drawing rooms with her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), giggling girlishly and plushly insulated from the outside world, we know it’s only a matter of time before the doors open and reality – or at least its costumed movie counterpart – blows in. And with that will come Belle’s reckoning, and the righting of history’s course.
There’s little doubt about this – indeed, it’s telegraphed from the instant she arrives at the Mansfield household and her aunt and uncle defrost instantly at the child’s huge-eyed helplessness. And there’s little cause for objection: It’s a comfort to know there’s reasoning minds beneath those wigs.
With a stately sense of purpose, much rustling of gowns and Austenian attention to propriety, the movie sets out to depict Dido’s influence on the judicial breakthrough perpetrated by her Lord Justice father – who faces a case in which a slave ship is charged with throwing its living human cargo overboard for insurance purposes. It also shows how justice and tolerance prevailed over commerce and racial intolerance.
Needless to say, Belle is a handsome piece of selectively reupholstered history, but its lesson on the victories of social progress in England seems almost as narrowly perceived as Dido’s own view of the world from the immaculately trimmed Mansfield lawns.
And deliberately so, I suspect: In focusing on the young woman’s gradual awakening to the injustice beyond the iron gates, and especially on the process by which her enlightenment is largely facilitated by a handsome and righteously indignant vicar’s son (Sam Reid), Belle smartly puts the historical record in the service of romantic costume drama requirements. They dictate that love, every bit as much as politics and social consciousness, is the thing that keeps the world on a course toward what is right.
There is little reference to the fact that this is transpiring at the early stages of British imperial enterprise, which saw the spread of an empire based brutally on the presumption of white privilege wherever the king’s ships found land. But explaining that would hopelessly complicate the matter of reassuring us that the past had a sense and sensibility just like our own.