Aside from opulent, fetishistic detail, heritage films are about “the rules,” be it the way a Regency-era heroine is expected to hold a spoon while a-courting or the hand-wringing caused by Oxbridge athletes’ religious beliefs. As the latter example suggests, the most interesting examples of heritage film and its cousin, the costume drama, are those that explore what happens when the rules are challenged, either by circumstance or will. One of the most intriguing aspects of the original Upstairs, Downstairs was the nascent middle-class status of Sarah and Thomas, who were not good enough to use the front door of Eaton Place but were also somehow above going through the servants’ entrance. (While this degree of awareness may seem quaint, such “controversy”—despite Hudson, Mrs. Hughes, and Rose’s simpering admiration of the Bellamys in the show—seems like Marxist propaganda when compared to Downton Abbey.)
The not-so-invisible rules of society—and race—remain a preoccupation among fans of such historical films, all the more so as audiences grow increasingly international. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most prominent examples of this trend are found in the 2010 reboot of Upstairs, Downstairs, which features the sagacious but bland Sikh manservant Mr. Armanjit as a secretary-cum-piece-of-furniture for matriarch Lady Holland, or in the most recent season of Downton, which incorporated Jack, an African-American jazz singer, into a soapy subplot involving the newest gentlelady of the house. (R.I.P. Lady Sybil; your storylines about Irish independence and straw socialism were marginally better.) Filtered through —or more accurately, jammed into—a fundamentally white perspective of the time period, neither Mr. Armanjit nor swingin’ Jack could really be whole persons, and certainly not conduits to thoughtfully explore the issue of race. Not unlike the maids of The Help, these characters’ storylines involve conflicts with The Obvious Racists—the old-fashioned curmudgeon who voices his distaste for miscegenation, the evil lady who’s only a moment away from dropping the N-word, or actual brown-shirt fascists marching up and down the square. (The Help is notable not only for rewriting civil-rights history, but for marking one of its Obvious Racists with a gigantic cold sore.) Were someone to learn about race solely through popular film—which sadly may be the case for most white Americans—it would seem that pre-Sixties non-white experience consists of brutalization in the cotton fields, verbal degradation in the master’s house, or nothing at all.
Thankfully, Belle corrects this invisibility. Inspired by a postcard print of “sister-cousins” Lady Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Mary Murray, writer-director Amma Asante has created a complex tale of race, gender, and love that has very clear present-day resonance. The illegitimate daughter of English aristocrat Admiral Sir John Murray and the slave Maria Belle, Dido (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was sent to live at Kenwood House with her great-uncle, Lord Chief Justice William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), at the age of 5 to live as a noblewoman. Although the intimate details of the Murrays’ relationships have not been preserved by history, Asante wisely chooses to portray love over resentment, and the heart of this story is the multitude of contradictions caused by Dido’s position in spite of (and because of) that overwhelming affection. Again, it’s all about the rules: Dido isn’t allowed to have dinner with her family when they have guests—historically, a common practice, explained away as a pragmatic effort to avoid potential conflict. The pain of growing up without seeing another person who looks like you is never explicitly spelled out, but it simmers throughout the film and comes to a boil in a scene in which Dido looks at herself in the mirror and pulls at the skin on her face. (Later in the film, she learns how to properly brush her hair from a black maid while on a visit to London.)
Dido’s interactions with other members of the gentry naturally lead to moments thornier than the “you are loved, but…” dynamics of her family. Money very often causes the rules to matter less, and Asante’s critiques of capitalism are just as biting as her commentary on race. Upon her father’s death, the debutante-age Dido is endowed with a substantial allowance, which makes her far more appealing to suitors—“despite” her race—than the penniless Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Forbidden from participating in “the season” in London by her uncle (he suggests she take over running the house, which essentially condemns her to spinsterhood), Dido quietly accompanies her sister-cousin on her unsuccessful campaign to snag a husband. Though not officially out on the market, she manages to net a proposal from the second son of a Lord (you know, not the inheriting kind) who’s fascinated by her “exoticness.” His family is alternately thrilled and not thrilled: “She’s so dark. She’s beautiful, but she’s so dark!” murmurs Dido’s befuddled mother-in-law-to-be. (From the Department of The More Things Change: this is something that Asante’s ex-husband’s mother actually said to her.) And while it’s clear from the engagement party that her new family will ensure she’ll be made even more invisible than she already is, she continues to go along with it because it’s been beaten into her head that she’s lucky to ever have anything at all. Dido’s status is also something that’s been beaten into Elizabeth’s head, and the only feuding between the two women happens because of Dido’s success in the marriage department. Tearing into each other out of a jealously driven by feelings of inadequacy, the ravages of who makes the rules and who gets fucked over by the rules becomes clear.
But for all this hurt, Belle has a happy resolution, which is largely thanks the empowering effects of Dido’s self-education and being actively interested in things other than men or money. Slowly, she gathers more information a case her uncle is deliberating, about the Zong massacre (in which a slave ship’s crew purposely drowned 142 slaves for insurance money), and discovers the abolitionist movement exists. In real life, Lord Chief Justice Murray made a ruling around the time Dido arrived at his house, but the will-he-or-won’t-he suspense of his decision-making lends a usefully conventional spine to the plot and a nice way to further talk through his contradictory feelings about race. As her world opens up, she learns to love herself, breaks off her engagement with the aristo, and lands a cute, respectful abolitionist (Sam Reid) who speaks so impassionedly that he seems perpetually on the verge of tears. (He’s basically a bara drawing that’s come to life.) And while the story—both in how it is told and in the fact that it is being told at all—gives the film the bulk of its weight, it’s also visually masterful. Recurring motifs emphasize Dido’s subjectivity, such as the use of mirrors, or the way her eyes often drift to the paintings of her illustrious white ancestors that hang at Kenwood, typically depicted with a cowering slave gazing up at them adoringly. (Remarkably, Asante only took up directing in 2003 at the urging of the UK Film Council, who funded her film school education and first feature, 2004’s A Way of Life.) Thanks to the superb performances by the supporting characters—Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, and Queenie herself Miranda Richardson—the film also has some of the best reaction shots this side of Merchant-Ivory. (One of the most intentionally hilarious sequences in the film is a series of shots of servants terrified by Lord Mansfield’s wrath.)
The subtleties and value of what Belle has to say may still be lost on many audiences. But it should be clear from Donald Sterling’s remarks that racism is not just the Klansman, and that money can make even the NAACP turn a blind eye. The rules are still the rules, after all.