I didn't grow up reading Jane Austen. The cult of Austen has always eluded me. I've often been sympathetic to Mark Twain's attitude to Austen, which he summed up as a desire to exhume her bones and brain her skull with a thighbone every time he tried to read Pride and Prejudice. In the interests of full disclosure, I admit to having had stereotypically masculine reading tastes when I was young, and I thought that Austen had very little for me. I never expected to marry or even embrace my own gender identity. I put on a good front of masculinity when I was a teen and young adult. Lately, though, I've been enjoying the hell out of entertainments that are deeply influenced by Austen to the point where I think I might have to revisit her. I've spent the last ten years reading books like Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, which are sometimes equal parts Austenian comedy of manners and C. S. Forester naval adventure and, more recently, Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist books, which introduce a touch of magic to the regency romance. I hesitate to suggest that this is a gendered response. It might be. It might not be.
Here's the thing, though: we are living in an era where diversity is becoming more and more the norm and part of that process is reevaluating the past from a post-diversity point of view. Reevaluating, I say, and reinterpreting. Adding an awareness of race and gendered oppression and intersectionality to new works derived from old ones has a tendency to engergize them. Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights, to name one example, turns that story into something radical by adding color to Heathcliff (something that has some justification in the text of the novel, it should be said). Casting Djimon Honsu as Caliban and changing the gender of Prospero in The Tempest does the same thing. People who complain about this sort of thing should probably examine why it is we need new not-diverse versions of these kinds of stories when the mountain of human history is littered with non-diverse versions just for the picking? This does not subtract from them. They're still there. No one is burning them or adding them to lists of "politically incorrect" proscribed works. Last time I checked, Sense and Sensibility was still on the shelf at my local library in its original very white, very English form. So was Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus. So was Gone With the Wind. But, really, it's time to move on.
It is an awareness of race and oppression that enlivens Amma Asante's Belle (2013), which is otherwise a painfully straightlaced costume drama of a sort you've seen a hundred times before. In its particulars, this is a Jane Austen story in which two sisters--one an heiress, the other destined to be penniless unless she marries well--navigate the waters of matrimony, searching for the right match, avoiding fortune hunters when they can. The film complicates things considerably with the race of its heroine, and therein lies the film's hook.