I didn't grow up reading Jane Austen. The cult of Austen has always eluded me. I've often been sympathetic to Mark Twain's attitude to Austen, which he summed up as a desire to exhume her bones and brain her skull with a thighbone every time he tried to read Pride and Prejudice. In the interests of full disclosure, I admit to having had stereotypically masculine reading tastes when I was young, and I thought that Austen had very little for me. I never expected to marry or even embrace my own gender identity. I put on a good front of masculinity when I was a teen and young adult. Lately, though, I've been enjoying the hell out of entertainments that are deeply influenced by Austen to the point where I think I might have to revisit her. I've spent the last ten years reading books like Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, which are sometimes equal parts Austenian comedy of manners and C. S. Forester naval adventure and, more recently, Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist books, which introduce a touch of magic to the regency romance. I hesitate to suggest that this is a gendered response. It might be. It might not be.
Here's the thing, though: we are living in an era where diversity is becoming more and more the norm and part of that process is reevaluating the past from a post-diversity point of view. Reevaluating, I say, and reinterpreting. Adding an awareness of race and gendered oppression and intersectionality to new works derived from old ones has a tendency to engergize them. Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights, to name one example, turns that story into something radical by adding color to Heathcliff (something that has some justification in the text of the novel, it should be said). Casting Djimon Honsu as Caliban and changing the gender of Prospero in The Tempest does the same thing. People who complain about this sort of thing should probably examine why it is we need new not-diverse versions of these kinds of stories when the mountain of human history is littered with non-diverse versions just for the picking? This does not subtract from them. They're still there. No one is burning them or adding them to lists of "politically incorrect" proscribed works. Last time I checked, Sense and Sensibility was still on the shelf at my local library in its original very white, very English form. So was Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus. So was Gone With the Wind. But, really, it's time to move on.
It is an awareness of race and oppression that enlivens Amma Asante's Belle (2013), which is otherwise a painfully straightlaced costume drama of a sort you've seen a hundred times before. In its particulars, this is a Jane Austen story in which two sisters--one an heiress, the other destined to be penniless unless she marries well--navigate the waters of matrimony, searching for the right match, avoiding fortune hunters when they can. The film complicates things considerably with the race of its heroine, and therein lies the film's hook.
The story follows Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the illegitimate mulatto daughter of a British sea captain and nobleman. Contrary to the norms of his time, Captain Lindsay acknowledges and loves Dido and takes her to his uncle's family to be raised as befits any issue of his own body. This is awkward for his uncle and his household, but he accedes to his nephew's wishes. Their other niece, they rationalize, could use a playmate. Over time, the other niece, Elizabeth, forms a close bond with Dido to the point that they're as inseparable as sisters. The household becomes accustomed to Dido, as well, and even though English propriety prohibits Dido from dining with her family when guests are in the house, she's never totally hidden. Her Uncle, Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of Great Britain, has the status to ignore whatever brickbats are cast at him for his charity, but he manages Dido's education and cultivation as a lady carefully. When her father dies, he leaves Dido a considerable fortune. Elizabeth, by contrast, has fallen victim of her father's remarriage to a woman who repudiates her. She stands to inherit nothing. Elizabeth is everything a prospective groom of the period might want in a wife: well bred, of the proper class, gorgeous, painfully white. Dido, by contrast, has her fortune, her intelligence, her talents, all of which balance the scales considerably in the eyes of the fortune-hunting Ashford brothers and their mother, Lady Ashford, who come a-courting. James Ashford, the elder son, has his fortune and seeks to expand his family's political power. He can afford to wear his racism on his sleeve. He has nothing but contempt for Dido, but casts an eye toward Elizabeth. Oliver Ashford, by contrast, has no such prospects. He's attracted to Dido's fortune and, after a fashion, to her herself. Complicating this is Mister Davinier, the son of the Mansfield's vicar and an aspirant to the bar. Lord Mansfield takes him under his tutelage, where he becomes friends with Dido. Davinier is passionate about the issue of slavery, and soon, he's informed Dido of the Zong massacre case before Lord Mansfield's court. The Zong, a slave ship, cast its cargo into the water, allegedly because they were running short of supplies, but in reality because the slaves had become diseased because of their mistreatment. This creates a moral dilemma for Lord Mansfield, because powerful forces have an interest in continuing the slave trade, while in his own house he has evidence of the humanity of Africans. This complicates all of the relationships in Lord Mansfield's house, especially the blooming romance between Davinier and Belle...
I complained about how this film is a straightlaced costume drama, but one should take that with a grain of salt. This is a handsome movie that derives its handsomeness not from any flashy cinematic legerdemain, but from the more traditional font of costume and production design. This is the first film made in the UK on one of the new 4k digital cameras and the image is impeccable. In spite of the clarity of the image and the richness of the decor, the camera is never intrusive, the editing invisible, you're never invited to think that the movie is aware of itself. This is not necessarily a fault. It conveys its story in an unfussy manner and while I'm disappointed that it's so staid and conservative a film, I can't actually criticize this. It is what it is. And, for what it's worth, the locations, the sets, and the costumes are beautiful.
As drama, this is more compelling than it is as cinema. It's centered on a character whose story is one that hasn't often been told in movies--if ever.
If you'll pardon another annoying personal anecdote: When I was in the fifth grade, I read a biography of Juan de Pareja, who was the painter Diego Velasquez's assistant and a painter in his own right. This is him:
I've always loved this painting (by Velasquez) and think of it fondly every time I see some moron on the internet complain that it's historically accurate to exclude black people from European costume dramas because history! There have been Africans and Asians in Europe since the dawn of Western civilization. You can theoretically swim to Europe from Tunisia or Gibraltar, and it's not as if boats were an exclusively European invention. Exclusion is an instrument of oppression. This painting has a story behind it: there was some concern that it would offend the sensibilities of the racist society mavens of the day, but those fears were dispelled upon its unveiling. It was instantly recognized as "truth," to quote one critic of the day, a masterpiece. Upon seeing this painting, Pope Innocent X commissioned Velasquez to paint his own portrait. There's a lesson in this. I thought of this painting while I was watching Belle, because another (real) painting figures into the story of the film. Dido and her cousin Elizabeth and other characters in this film were real historical personages--the film is a "true" story insofar as the people in it actually existed and the Zong case was an actual case. This is what the real Dido and Elizabeth looked like:
This painting, like Velasquez's portrait of Pareja, is downright subversive when it comes to the racial politics of the day. Dido is on an equal eyeline with her cousin and is obviously not a servant. There's an attempt to render her as beautiful, which is not something that was common among the people of color populating the backgrounds of society portraits during the rococo period. People of color were more likely to be lampooned. This painting's creation is a subplot in the movie, and serves as a talisman for the fact that her family has overcome whatever reservations about Dido they may have had. That process is also a subplot of the movie. More than that, though, is the notion that depiction itself is important, something the film elides with Dido's glances at the black people in the backgrounds of the paintings at her home at Kenwood House, who were often on the level of the pets. Sympathetic? Maybe. Human? Maybe not. This is the film's most important metatext, given that representation in media and standards of beauty remain problems for marginalized peoples even in places where those people are the majority.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the center of the film as Dido. Her performance is very much the grand dame of a costume drama, given steel by the actress's direct gaze and cultured manners. It's the performance of a movie star in the best sense of that phrase. She commands the screen. When she's on camera, the camera's gaze is centered on her. Given that she's playing opposite some of the UK's more blustery scenery-chewers, this is one of the film's sweeter accomplishments. Tom Wilkinson has the pivotal role of Lord Mansfield, and he's cast against type here. I'm so used to seeing Wilkinson play bastards and villains that it's a shock to see a genuinely conflicted performance from him, one that's predicated on his character's genuine goodness. By contrast, Miranda Richardson's Lady Ashford is a burlesque of a social climbing noblewoman and Tom Felton's James Ashford is another variant of Draco Malfoy. I feel bad for Felton, who I would love to see playing a sympathetic character one of these days. Matthew Goode as Dido's father, Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield, Penelope Wilton as Dido's spinster Aunt Mary, and Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth are all underused, but good in their small parts. Sarah Gadon would be the focus in many another Austen-esque film, but here she's on the sideline. Sam Reid's Mr. Davinier's role is thankless, given that it requires him to be a paragon of virtue. The actors and the on-screen relationships between their characters are the film's major narrative hook.
The politics of the film are both obvious and necessary. Necessary, I say, because there are still people who want to erase people of color from Western Civilization in the name of "history," or whatever. Obvious, because the moral issue of the film is one no civilized person questions. Slavery is the embarrassing and brutal instrument of colonialism, the blood and bones of slaves the mortar between the bricks of Western civilization, and in spite of this, there are still bloviating media personalities in the United States and elsewhere who persist in believing that slavery wasn't all that bad, that black people were "better off" under slavery. The denouement of this film puts paid to this when it describes the practice in the abstract as "abominable" and the particulars of the events of the film's legal problem as utterly horrifying.
Truth to tell, I'm happier with the romantic elements of the film than I am with the courtroom drama it turns into in its last act. I mean, they're just as conventional, but the emotions involved are less obviously designed as didacticism. I find myself unexpectedly moved by the heartbreak Elizabeth feels when she discovers that James is nakedly a fortune-hunter, by the scene where Dido realizes that Oliver is only a less-odious fortune hunter and breaks off her engagement, and the fact that she finds happiness in a man who is worthy of her. Like many romances, there's an element of wish-fulfillment fantasy in this plot, but, you know, I'm fine with that. I go to movies for the fantasy sometimes, too, and I came late in life to this particular kind of fantasy. I'm happy enough to be carried along with it.
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