Friday, Aug 22, 2014 05:50 am est

‘Belle’ falls short of potential

Posted on May 1, 2014 | by J. R. Hammerer

courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Belle” is a remarkable story smothered under layers of costume drama dress-up. The film tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the black, illegitimate daughter of a Navy officer, who was raised by her aristocratic extended family as a free woman in 18th-century England, before the abolition of slavery.

Dido is a fascinating figure, but the film buries this among layers of shopworn Jane Austen-isms. Director Amma Asante has applied all sorts of visual niceties to the film’s surface, but the lovingly fashioned period detail embalms a story that is unable to see past all the petticoats and paintings.

It does not help that the script, from screen and television writer Misan Sagay (“The Secret Laughter of Women”), is formulaic to the point of being reductive. Despite the promise of such an original character, “Belle” blooms into yet another movie in which forbidden love reshapes the social problems opposing it. This development is magnified by the white male lead, a lawyer fighting an anti-slavery case who is bland enough to pass as a “Les Misérables” extra.

Why, in a movie that aims to explore the fragile boundaries between race, power and privilege, is the main plot so broad and fuzzy? Topics like Dido herself, her immediate family and a world that has to reconcile her existence with its social codes would all make for a more compelling drama, but they are only present in brief flashes. Why are they being shunted aside for a love as affecting as cardboard?

The film’s lead actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, shows audiences the potential that “Belle” could have achieved. Her Dido is a rich, complex young woman, her eyes hinting at feelings her poise cannot bear to reveal.

Although she is raised in a white family, Dido is prevented from full participation in the society of her family. She teeters on a string between identities, and Mbatha-Raw vibrates with the slightest pluck. She is a modern woman in an earlier time trying to find footing within her existence. Yet, the movie is too eager to pull back from this presence.

And Mbatha-Raw is not the only talent sidelined by the plot. Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson are similarly compelling, having to reconcile Dido’s race with their natural parental feelings. Unfortunately, the film does not care to dig deeper.

The script is all longing looks and hushed meetings, with dialogue that does not even bother with subtext. All of this is not inherently wrong, but it surely is maddeningly ordinary. Dido is a remarkable woman, but “Belle” does not know what to do with her.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, May 1 print edition. J.R. Hammerer is a staff writer. Email him at


  • Nicholas Ennos

    There is an interesting connection between Belle and Jane Austen. Belle’s great uncle Lord Mansfield had been a very good poet in his youth. His friend, the poet and dramatist Lady Sophia Burrell, praised him as a great poet in one of her poems and dedicated her volume of poetry to him. Lady Sophia Burrell also wrote another poem to her friend Eliza de Feuillide in which she praised Eliza de Feuillide as a great novelist. Eliza de Feuillide was the cousin and sister in law of Jane Austen and the real author of Jane Austen’s novels. For further details see my book “Jane Austen – a New Revelation”.

  • John Francis Fox

    To Nicholas Ennos: Can you briefly explain what proves your statement that Eliza de Feullide was the real author of Jane Austen’s novels?

profile portrait
Felipe De La Hoz

Multimedia Editor | Felipe De La Hoz is a Colombian national studying journalism at the College of Arts and Sciences. Having been born in Colombia and raised in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, Felipe is a trilingual travel aficionado and enjoys working in varied and difficult environments. Apart from his photography, Felipe enjoys investigative reporting and interviews, interviewing the likes of Colombian ex-M-19 guerrilla fighters and controversial politician Jimmy McMillan. He has covered everything from governmental conferences to full-blown riots, as well as portraiture shoots and dining photography. Having worked under Brazilian photojournalists for Reuters and AFP, Felipe hopes to one day work on demanding journalistic projects and contribute to the global news cycle.

Ann Schmidt

News Editor | Ann is a liberal studies sophomore who lived in Florence during her freshman year. She plans on double-majoring in journalism and political science and is always busy. She is constantly making lists and she loves to laugh.


Daniel Yeom

Daniel started at the Features desk of WSN last Spring, writing restaurant reviews whilst indulging on free food and consequently getting fat. Last Fall, he was the dining editor, and he this semester he is senior editor. Daniel is in Gallatin (living the dream) studying Food & Travel Narratives, incorporating aspects of Food Studies, Journalism, and Media, Culture, and Communication. He loves food more than life itself.

Hannah Luu

Deputy Multimedia Editor | Hannah Luu is a ridiculously great Deputy Multimedia Editor. She is a sophomore from Northern California. If you think Northern California means San Francisco you might need to closely examine a map. She is passionate about NPR and being half Asian.

  • How to join:

    The Washington Square News holds open weekly budget meetings at its office located at 838 Broadway every Sunday. All are welcome to attend, no matter your background in journalism, writing, or reporting. Specific times for meetings by desk are listed below. If you wish to talk to an editor before you attend, feel free to check out the Staff page.

    5 P.M. 6 P.M. 6 P.M. 6:30 P.M. 6:30 P.M. 7 P.M.

    Applying for an editor position: Applications for editor positions during the fall or spring semesters are available twice each academic year and can be found here when posted. Applications for the Fall 2012 semester are closed, but check back for Spring 2013. Those who wish to apply are urged to publish pieces in the newspaper and contact current editors for shadowing.

    History of the Washington Square News:

    The Washington Square News is the official daily student newspaper of New York University and serves the NYU, Greenwich Village, and East Village communities. Founded as an independent newspaper in 1973, the WSN allows its undergraduate writers and photographers to cover campus and city news and continues to grow its strong body of award-winning journalists and photographers.

  • The WSN has a circulation of about 60,000 and can be found in over a hundred purple bins distributed throughout campus. It is published Monday through Thursday during the fall and spring semesters and online on Friday, with additional special issues published in the summer. The newspaper recently revamped its website during the Fall 2012 semester.

    Like few campus newspapers in the country, the paper is editorially and financially independent from the university and is solely responsible for selling advertisements to fund its production. The WSN, including its senior staff, is run solely by current undergraduate students and the business-division is largely student-operated as well.

    A Board of Directors comprised of alumni, NYU professors and working news media professionals serves as advisors to the paper. Board members have no control in the WSN's editorial policy or newsroom operations. Alumni of the newspaper are established and leading journalists in such news organizations as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NBC news, ABC news, Fox News, and USA Today.