Jeanne Powell reviews director Amma Asante’s “Belle,” starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
RUN TIME: 105 minutes
Directed by: Amma Asante
Written by: Misan Sagay
Produced by: Damian Jones
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, Penelope Wilton, Miranda Richardson, Tom Felton, Sam Reid and Matthew Goode
BELLE is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral. Raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson), Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet the color of her skin prevents her from fully participating in the traditions of her social standing. Left to wonder if she will ever find love, Belle falls for an idealistic young vicar’s son bent on change who, with her help, shapes Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England.
“Belle” is a fascinating film, combining an important time in British political history with a beautifully rendered love story. Directed by Amma Asante and written by Misan Sagay, this British film had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
For those who thought the United States was the only western nation having to deal with the mind-bending subject of human slavery, think again. Before the U.S. had its crisis culminating in the trauma of a civil war (1861-1865), there was an ongoing debate in the U.K.
A youthful Victoria sat on the British throne (1837-1901) at a time when the sun never set on the British empire. Human slavery was a source of great income for the growing middle class in England and its colonies. At the same time the British anti-slavery movement was one of the most significant reform movements of the 19th century.
Into this world of shocking contrast and surreal inequality came the Zong massacre case in 1781, which maritime lawsuit became an early foundation for the eventual abolition of slavery in the British empire, and then for abolitionists to persuade Queen Victoria and her council to enforce a ban on the international slave trade, using the British navy to do so.
But to return to 1769 when the film begins, young Belle is transported by her father (Matthew Goode) to the home of his uncle in England. Belle is illegitimate and racially mixed; her mother was a slave, now deceased. Captain Sir John Lindsay (Goode) must return to his ship, so Belle has to stay with his relatives. Captain Lindsay’s uncle happens to be the lord chief justice of England (Tom Wilkinson) and he is appalled at this turn of events. After all, he and his wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) already are raising another illegitimate child, the blonde daughter of another of their nephews.
However, it’s not as though the palatial estate isn’t large enough for two little girls with mothers who are socially unacceptable in high society. Protected from judgmental eyes, the two children are raised with love, and their luxurious life is simple until they come of age. Anyone who has seen Masterpiece Theatre productions on TV, or read Jane Austen novels, or enjoyed films by Merchant & Ivory knows that things become very complicated once young women are ready to be presented in society.
Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (Dido to her family) is played superbly by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a young woman who has come into her full beauty in a social circle where she is too exotic by half. Her blonde cousin Elizabeth has equally winning ways and is well played by Sarah Gadon. To further complicate matters, Dido has been left #2,000 (pounds) a year by her thoughtful father, while her white cousin is penniless. Here the social rules have to be made up as they go along, because Dido’s color complicates matters and her cousin Elizabeth’s lack of an income is embarrassing.
We are taken fully into the world of 18th century British society during “the season” – horse-drawn carriages, precious jewels, lovely ball gowns, elegant estates, gossip galore, social intrigue, obsequious servants (black and white) and anxious mothers hovering as eligible daughters begin searching for husbands in earnest. Remember this was serious business back then – marriage was forever and your status was determined by your marriage. The worst fate was to marry beneath you. The second worst fate was to be a spinster, like the aunt played perfectly by Penelope Wilton, a former governess assigned to watch over the girls until they marry.
Suitors for Dido and her cousin make it clear that marital anxiety is shared; men of social rank without fortunes must marry an heiress, or find a profession. John Davinier (Sam Reid) seeks a career as a lawyer, but is overcome with love the moment he sees Dido. Oliver Ashford (James Norton) is the son of a lord, but will not inherit money because he is not the first born son. Oliver’s brother (Tom Felton) demonstrates by his behavior how ugly these eligibility wars can get as they listen to string quartets and stroll in exquisite gardens while plotting who gets what. Their fierce mother bear, Lady Ashford, is determined to get the best possible match for her sons, and Miranda Richardson is a delight in the role.
The Zong massacre case eventually goes before the lord chief justice of England, right about the time his niece Dido is becoming interested in the antislavery movement. Political parties are divided; university students and young lawyers argue the merits of supporting one side or the other. Did the human cargo die by accident, or were these African slaves drowned in chains so the ship’s captain could collect the insurance money?
Of course, we know the outcome of the case, just as we know Dido and her cousin Elizabeth are immortalized in a famous oil painting hanging in the Scotland estate of the Mansfield aristocrats. How it all came about is subject to some dramatic license because we do not know as much as we would like about Dido’s early life. But there are happy endings here, in addition to a story well told, and I do recommend this film.