Beware of people who say of a film that it “has its heart in the right place”. They usually mean on its sleeve. That is no place for a heart, least of all a bleeding one. But Belle has been greeted by some British critics as if it is the last, best, most generous pulsing of contemporary liberal cinema.
It has long been the British critical disease to confuse worthy subject matter with worthwhile cinema. Belle is an illustrated lecture, earnest, pious and logorrhoeic, in which costumed people stand about in halls or on lawns talking of slavery and racism. The place is England, the year 1770, the source story true (or mostly) which inspired director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay.
In Kenwood, north of London, the seat of Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), England’s Lord Chief Justice, the slave and race issues of the day are pertinent since half-black Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), adopted into the family, is Lord Mansfield’s slave-mothered ward. She was offloaded by her father, Mansfield’s errant brother. Belle’s mere presence reminds everyone daily – like a bell – not to forget the topics of slavery and racism. And by coincidence or historical synergy, Mansfield is about to rule on the famous “Zong” case, named after the ship that cast 142 slaves overboard to briny deaths, and then submitted a claim on cargo insurance. “Can human beings be cargo?” is the question Mansfield must rule on. Can they be transportable, priceable chattels?
They can here. The film’s players are delivered to the good ship “Costume Sermon”, secured to their chalk marks, and asked to move as little as possible while vocalising rickety, notional 18th-century dialogue. This consists of antique-veneer periphrases alternating with the odd crashing moment of vernacular (“My God, it’s a negro!”)
Listen to people talk in 12 Years a Slave to know that period conversation can be real and sound real. Watch Steve McQueen’s film to know that period characters can be and seem real. Belle presents a love plot worthy of Mills and Boon – an heiress, though colour-disadvantaged, Belle grows up to choose between a callow, wealthy aristo and an honest-hearted pauper with his mind in the right place (the anti-slave lobby) – while the screen’s periphery fills up with well-known British actors mugging and commenting. It’s an inert, pompous, un-cinematic piece of cinema. Everyone was rude, and justly, about Spielberg’s Amistad. Here is the same movie; but it is British and so the British opinion-makers tell us to love it.