Let justice be done, though the heaven's may fall
This wonderful film tells the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle , the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral in 18th Century England.The nature of the story allows the filmmakers to explore a number of interesting topics within the basic framework of Dido's upbringing and her entry into adulthood. As the daughter of a member of the English aristocracy, who was also born on British soil, she is afforded certain rights. However, since she is also illegitimate and of mixed race, the strict social conventions of the time mean that she is also denied certain privileges. As a result the viewer gets a valuable insight into the social and class structures of 18th Century England. This applies not only to the differences between the upper and lower classes but also within the upper class itself. Depending on who was born first, two brothers could face very different circumstances, with one inheriting everything and the other left with a choice of marriage, the Church or the Military.Since Dido's mother was black, the film also shows the racist attitudes that were prevalent at that time, as well as people's feelings about slavery. Dido's emergence as a woman coincides with an insurance case involving a ship that deliberately killed its cargo of slaves. This case becomes a cause celebre for the growing abolitionist movement and opens Dido's eyes to the realities of life for those held in slavery. The film also draws clear parallels between the slaves, who are owned by their masters, and upper class women, who are effectively owned by their husbands. It's this last element that provides the film with much of its narrative drive, culminating a Jane Austen style romance. By successfully combining the weightier issues of the time with a romantic subplot, the result is a hugely enjoyable and eye-opening film.
The film opens with Captain John Lindsey (Matthew Goode) bringing his illegitimate daughter from the West Indies to live with his uncle the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). Lindsey loved Dido's mother, who has died, and he wants her to be brought up as one of the family, despite her mixed race origins. The Earl of Mansfield, who is also the Lord Chief Justice, accepts her into the family because he feels it is the right thing to do but also demands she adhere's to strict guidelines that he feels are appropriate. So, for example, Dido isn't allowed to dine with the family because that would be improper but she is allowed to socialise with them afterwards. Conversely she also isn't allowed to eat with the household staff because as the Earl's grandniece she is above them.
Much of the film centres around Dido's relationship with her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) and their hopes and dreams as they reach adulthood. The two girls were raised as equals and are more like sisters but whereas Dido inherits a sizeable pension when her father dies, Elizabeth has essentially been disowned by her father, who remarried after her mother's death. This means that in a strange way Dido is the better off of the two because despite being of mixed race, she is financially independent in a way that Elizabeth never can be. The film draws the obvious parallel between slaves and wives, who are utterly dependent on their husbands; Elizabeth must find a wealthy man to marry because society denies her any other way of supporting herself.
As a result the main plot is very much like any of Jane Austen's romances, with Elizabeth searching for a suitable husband and Dido finding herself falling for a young lawyer, John Davinier (Sam Reid) who is being mentored by her great-uncle. It's her burgeoning relationship with Davinier that opens her eyes to the realities of slavery, something that her family has deliberately shielded her from. As Lord Chief Justice, her great-uncle has to rule on an insurance case relating to The Zong, a ship that deliberately killed its cargo of slaves. The insurance company is refusing to pay out because they feel the slaves were not killed due to insufficient drinking water endangering the crew but because the poor transportation conditions had left the slaves diseased and thus worthless.
The film draws fascinating parallels between the fate of different races, genders and classes.
The Zong case was one of the key steps towards the abolition of slavery in the UK and Dido's great-uncle is under considerable pressure from both sides - those who feel that slavery is abhorrent and those who believe abolishing the trade will significantly effect the economy of Great Britain. It's to the film's credit that it manages to deal with such difficult subjects without ever becoming heavy handed, always remaining entertaining and at times quite moving. This is in part due to a fantastic cast that includes Emily Watson as the Earl of Mansfield's wife, Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford and Penelope Wilton as the Earl's sister, whose life as an old maid is a fate that Dido refuses to accept. However it's Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the adult Dido who dominates the film, her expressive face perfectly capturing the frustration and anger she often feels.
The film was officially written by Misan Sagay and directed by Amma Asante but in actual fact, Asante both wrote and directed Belle. Sagay was given credit by the Writers Guild of America, despite the film being a British production and Asante writing the final screenplay. The WGA's decision was based on the fact that Sagay had written the first draft before falling ill but a joint credit would have seemed fairer. Despite the controversy surrounding the screenplay, Asante handles the direction well and is ably supported by excellent production design, beautiful costumes and Rachel Porter's lovely score. Belle was a co-production between the BFI, the Isle of Man and the Pinewood Group and was also the first major British production to be shot in 4K, using Sony's F65 camera.
Belle would be an interesting film even if it was pure fiction but, in fact, much of what happens is based on actual events. There is a sub-plot within the film that revolves around a painting that the Earl of Mansfield has commissioned of his his two grandnieces sat together. The film shows the actual painting during the end credits, reminding us that both Dido and Elizabeth were real people, making their story all the more remarkable.
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