Ever wondered what would happen if you crossed 12 Years A Slave with Downton Abbey? Oh. You didn’t? All the same, we now have the answer. You get the handsomely shot, impeccably acted British costume drama Belle.
Like 12 Years, Belle is based on historical fact. Unlike 12 Years, which adapted Northrup’s own personal diary, what little is known of the original “Belle” is given considerable embellishment by writer Misan Sagay.
We do know that, as the illegitimate “mulatto” daughter of a British nobleman and a black slave, Belle was raised as one of the family by her great uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, and that she was immortalised in a famous portrait playing with her white cousin as an equal. We also know that, as Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield was called upon to pass judgement on a court case vital to the legitimacy of the slave trade. However the intersection of these stories, and the love interest that impinges on the politics, is pure fiction.
The result could easily have been risible. The searing drama of 12 Years is kick-started by Northrup being betrayed, kidnapped, and sold into brutal slavery. The more sedate drama in Belle hinges, for the first third of the film at least, on her mild irritation at not being permitted to dine with guests at Kenwood House, but only to join them for after-dinner drinks.
But as Belle discovers more about the brutal treatment of slaves, as gradually revealed by the precedent-setting Zong case over which her great uncle is presiding, and encounters genuine, naked prejudice for herself (at the hands of Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy), petulance over class distinctions gives way to a slow-burning and righteous anger. In a deft piece of scriptwriting, she also comes to realise that all women, even noble-born white women, are little more than pampered slaves in the male-dominated society of the late 18th century.
12 Years, as filmed by Steve McQueen, is a genuine work of art. Belle, as expertly filmed by Streatham girl and Grange Hill graduate Amma Asante, is more a work of artifice. But it’s an impeccably realised and structured one, with a career-best performance from the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson as the Earl of Mansfield and a star-making turn from Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle, that by the end arouses in the viewer real fury, and real tears. To say that it comes second-best to this year’s worthy Oscar-winner is by no means a slight. Go see.