Belle is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed race daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay, a Royal Navy Admiral. The story starts with Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) bringing Belle as a child (played by Lauren Julien-Box) to England. Not enough was seen of Goode, who is arguably best remembered for his role as Stanley the intrepid reporter in Dancing on the Edge, but then that was down to the part he was playing. Best known in the movie for his sometimes less than prophetic line ‘What is right can never be impossible’ that was the last one saw of Captain Lindsay.
Belle, whose mother had died, was left with her aristocratic great-uncle William Murray the first earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson) while Lindsay returned to his ship. The First Earl of Mansfield was also the Lord Chief Justice who presided over many of the historic cases that affected enslaved Africans.
Lord Mansfield and his wife had no children of their own but they were already looking after Belle’s cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had also died. Lord and Lady Mansfield decided to call Belle Dido.
Hence Dido and Elizabeth were brought up in Kenwood House, the home of Lord and Lady Mansfield. Dido did not enjoy the same privileges as Elizabeth because of the colour of her skin even though she had been accepted as one of the family.
The film very much amplifies the words written in the American Thomas Hutchinson’s diary in 1779 following a dinner at Kenwood House:
“A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other. She had a very high cap and her wool was much frizzled in her neck, but not enough to answer the large curls now in fashion. She is neither handsome nor genteel – pert enough. I knew her history before, but my Lord mentioned it again. Sir John Lindsay having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England where she was delivered of this girl, of which she was then with child, and which was taken care of by Lord M., and has been educated by his family. He calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her – I dare not say criminal.
A few years ago there was a cause before his Lordship bro’t by a Black for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter being asked what judgement his Ldship would give? “No doubt” he answered “He will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.”
Given here restricted social standing Dido wonders if she will ever find true love. A match is made with Oliver Ashford (played by James Norton) a principled man which is far from the sadistic psychopathic character played by Norton in the recent television series Happy Valley. Norton plays both roles so convincingly that you may be forgiven for thinking he is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character.
Dido however falls for the idealistic young vicar’s son, John Davinier (Sam Reid) who is an activist against slavery. Lord Mansfield considers Davinier is not worthy of courting Dido because he lacks professional status. Mansfield and Davinier also have opposite views on an insurance claim made by a Liverpool slave trade syndicate for loss of human cargo..................................AND SO THE STORY CONTINUES.
Belle is another anti-slavery film that, even without the brutal intensity of 12 Years a Slave, remains powerful enough to feel sympathy for those that suffer.
Tom Wilkinson gives a ‘full monty’ of a performance as Dido’s guardian balancing his feelings for her and the need to reflect her standing in public life and as Lord Chief Justice in making the right decisions over personal and principled opinions against commercial interests.
There are solid performances from Emily Watson and Penelope Wilton (Lady Mary Murray) and Miranda Richardson successfully portrays a conniving deceitful mother of the Ashford brothers and in the process confirms her reputation as one of British cinema's foremost purveyors of elegant, energetic dysfunction.
Sam Reid is uneasily convincing as the frustrated with life John Davinier and Canadian Sarah Gadon makes an impressive debut in a major British film as Elizabeth Murray. Lurking in the background amongst the very best of actors is a talented Welsh Gem with an engaging smile by the name of Bethan Mary-James who plays Mabel.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw may be unfamiliar to many. A classically trained British actress, she has had limited exposure in this country with supporting roles on television including Spooks and Doctor Who. She really came to prominence in America where, on Broadway, she played Ophelia in Hamlet opposite Jude Law who played the title role. Her performance was so good that it lead to her sharing the lead role in an American television series.
Her casting as Belle has proved a profound and unqualified success. Hers is a demanding role which she plays to perfection giving a potential award winning performance. As befitting Belle’s rise above her social standing in real life Mbatha-Raw out-performs the more established actors.
Having a great cast is one thing but the success of this film is equally dependent on its creative team. Belle was a long time in the making but it was well worth the effort by a creative that clearly demonstrates the best of quality in all disciplines.
Amma Asante’s direction ensures that all the story lines are balanced and are delivered with appropriate and convincing amounts of drama, emotion and tenderness.
Misan Sagay’s screen writing provides a storyline that although not completely accurate is full of the essentials, without being overburdened by detail, that makes the film easy to follow and very enjoyable. Ben Smithard’s cinematography is magnificent and takes full advantage of each of the locations and the costumes are as splendid as the best in any period drama. Rachel Portman’s musical score is wonderful and, in this author’s opinion, is one of several potential Oscar nominations.
Together, the cast and creative team have contrived to provide a must-see movie that not only is a seamless production of a period drama but also has an original and moving theme. It was a joy to watch and listen throughout.
Finally, it is worth taking note of what Dwight Eisenhower said on his first inaugural address in 1953, a statement which has as much relevance today as it did then and before;
A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.
Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray (by an unknown artist, formerly attributed to Zoffany) from the collection of the Earl of Mansfield, Scone Palace, Perth
The above portrait of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth is unusual for its time as Dido’s beauty is portrayed and it gives a sense of her individual personality. At the time it was common for black people to be placed in subservient positions kneeling to the side of their white masters, or in the background with blank or caricatured expressions.
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