DIR: Amma Asante • WRI: Misan Sagay • PRO: Damian Jones • ED: Victoria Boydell, Pia Di Ciaula • DOP: Ben Smithard • DES: Simon Bowles • MUS: Rachel Portman • CAST: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson
The inspiration for director Amma Asante’s fascinating period costumed drama, Belle, came from quite an unusual place – in Scone Palace at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, there hangs a painting of two young women from the 18th century. One of the women is pale-skinned and blue-eyed, and tenderly rests her arm on the black woman standing next to her, who has her dark black hair wrapped in a turban and sports a mischievous grin. It was this painting’s depiction of the young black woman that ultimately galvanised writer Misan Sagay to delve into the historical records of the time and unearth the story surrounding her. The illegitimate child of a black slave and a Royal Navy captain (Matthew Goode), Dido Belle Lindsay was sent to live with her great-uncle, the Lord of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, in the safe and protected environment of Kenwood House in Hampstead, spared from an underprivileged and poverty-stricken upbringing, and raised as an aristocrat along with the other girl in the painting, her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon).
And so, in amongst the lavishly decorated corridors adorned with opulent portraits, stately dining rooms lit by candlelight, wide open living areas, and the lush, aesthetically pleasing gardens is where Dido resides as part of the family, under the watchful eye of Lord and Lady Mansfield. However, even though she is certainly treated as an equal in the estate, Dido lives in a Georgian England where the economy is still very much dependant on the slave trade, where less than a third of the black population is free, and where her mere presence at the after-dinner recitals in her own home can cause looks of shock and bewilderment from the distinguished guests.
Even though Lord and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) treat her as if she were one of their own, they do not allow her to eat with her family when they are hosting; the world outside the estate still looks upon the black population as second-class citizens, or as the bigoted James Ashford (Tom Felton playing a Georgian Draco Malfoy), one of the potential suitors to Elizabeth puts it, “rare and exotic”. Dido duly obliges to the wishes of her guardians and maintains a stiff upper lip. Traditions must be honoured, unwritten rules must be abided, and emotions must be suppressed.
The conventional yet entertaining Jane Austen elements soon come into play, with both Dido and Elizabeth now old enough to court potential suitors who will hopefully be able to provide not only financial stability, but also the desired social status of being married to a man of prestige within the British aristocracy. Neither girl wants to end up like Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton providing comic relief), Lord Mansfield’s unmarried sister. In a surprising turn of events however, it’s revealed that Dido is the heiress to a large fortune and is thus elevated to unprecedented heights in the British aristocracy. Upon learning of her new found fortune, the arrogant Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson), the mother of potential suitors to the Mansfield girls, quickly puts her deep-seated racism and antipathy towards the “rare and exotic” to one side and allows her son, Oliver Ashford, to take Dido’s hand in marriage. No matter what the colour of your skin is, or your given class, money is by far the most influential factor when it comes to choosing a life partner.
It’s only when Dido meets the dashing young lawyer, John Davinier (the film’s ‘Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’ relationship), who is under the tutelage of her great-uncle, that she begins to adopt revolutionary inclinations and instils in her a sense of pride towards her heritage. Lord Mansfield is also presiding over a case that could ultimately bring the English slave trade to its knees: the Zong massacre of 1781 in which 142 African slaves were thrown from a ship bound for Jamaica so the crew could claim insurance on their supposed cargo. Dido begins to question the regressive social conventions, the strict formalities, and her place in the aristocracy as a woman of mixed race (“How may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants and too low in rank to dine with my family?”).
One of the most rewarding aspects of the film is witnessing Dido’s transformation from a shy, subservient, and downtrodden young woman into a confident and determined activist, which is in part due to actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who deserves universal recognition for her portrayal of the titular heroine. Even though very little is actually known about the historical figure of Dido Belle, Mbatha-Raw successfully brings the character to life, delivering a dignified and enthralling performance of a young woman who is entangled within the politics of race, gender, and class of 18th century England.
As acting Lord Chief Justice and as a man of strict principles, Lord Mansfield (a towering performance by the great Tom Wilkinson) is obligated to uphold the law and to enforce the rules in his courtroom, yet his love for Dido forces him to re-evaluate his position on the significant case. We are treated to passionate and rousing speeches about the legitimacy of the law from Mansfield, and then speeches from Devinier (Sam Reid) and Dido about equality and the abhorrence of slavery, which ultimately builds up to the historical courtroom climax.
The film’s period setting will certainly not appeal to every viewer, and at times, the film suffers from bouts of mediocrity. As well as that, the Austenesque elements feel uninspired and formulaic, and the film unfortunately often veers into territory one would usually associate with the average Hollywood romantic comedy. Asante’s direction and shooting style remains safe: competent yet nothing special. Ultimately, it’s the film’s conventionalities that keep it from greatness. But in spite of that, however, Belle, just like Steve McQueen’s seminal 12 Years a Slave, is an extremely important film in forming our perception of the past and in giving us an insight into the absolute horrors of slavery. In spite of the film’s shortcomings, Asante and Sagay have succeeded in bringing such a fascinating and complex subject from the darker periods of England’s history to light.
PG (See IFCO for details)
Belle is released on 13th June 2014