Should’ve Been a Contender: Gugu Mbatha-Raw for “Belle” (2013)

For this Awards Season we’re looking back at the films, the actors and the directors who should have been a contender for the Oscars. Here’s Nicole Ackman’s piece on why Gugu Mbatha-Raw should have been nominated for “Belle”.

By Nicole Ackman

Looking back on the past decade, one of the best and most overlooked leading actress performances is Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “Belle” (2013). It was a strong year for leading ladies at the Oscars, with Amy Adams, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, and Meryl Streep nominated and Cate Blanchett taking home the award. And yet, Mbatha-Raw’s performance is one of those that sticks out to me the most when reflecting on the past decade in film. She certainly deserved to be a contender, but unfortunately, though the film garnered mostly positive reviews, it simply wasn’t widely seen. 

“Belle” is a fictionalized account of the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, inspired by the famous 1779 painting of Dido alongside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. Dido was the daughter of Sir John Lindsay and a black woman in the West Indies. She was brought to England by her father after her mother’s death and entrusted to the care of her father’s uncle, William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield. The film largely deals with her uncle’s involvement as Lord Chief Justice of England with the court case around the Zong massacre, which is seen as contributing to the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act twenty-some years later. 

The movie was directed by Amma Asante, a female director born in London to parents from Ghana. Much of the film centres around Dido’s inner and outer conflicts about her race and position. She is stuck in a conundrum: she is an heiress, raised as equals with her cousin, but she is mixed-race and no one in society seems sure of how to treat her. Her aunt and uncle expect her to remain unmarried and at home, as they believe that no one worthy of her fortune would be interested in marrying her because of her mixed-race. 

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle (2013) © 2013 – Fox Searchlight Pictures

Mbatha-Raw gives a performance that is at once very dignified and incredibly passionate. She captures the elegance and poise of a woman who has been raised as a part of high society particularly well. Her strong will, sense of intellectualism, and more reserved nature stand in sharp contrast to her sister-cousin’s more coquettish, sprightly manner, played by Sarah Gadon. The easy affection between the two women is one of the most lovely parts of the film and their chemistry together is perfect. 

Mbatha-Raw’s Dido is a woman who has grown up very sheltered and is yearning to learn more of the world and her place in it. Her performance is so emotive, both in her dialogue and even without words. She is particularly strong in the scenes in which she sits in on the court case; even without any lines, she is able to pack a powerful emotional punch. Similarly, there is a scene where she sits at her vanity, reflecting on her situation and the pain and heartbreak that she is able to bring across to the audience without any words is stunning. 

Mbatha-Raw perfectly depicts a woman bound by restraints because of both her gender and the colour of her skin in late-eighteenth-century Britain. She is a great scene partner whether it’s opposite her well-meaning uncle played by Tom Wilkinson or the snotty nobleman courting her cousin played by Tom Felton. She is able to capture hurt and betrayal and joy and delight, largely through her eyes and facial expressions. It is a shame that Mbatha-Raw’s performance was so overlooked in 2013 when “Belle” was released for it certainly was one of the best of the year.

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