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Movie Review: “Belle”

Movie Review: “Belle”
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Inspired by a painting, Amma Asante’s period drama is easy viewing for the Jane Austen crowd for whom “12 Years a Slave” might have proven too tough an assignment.

Pared of any graphically unsavory elements, “Belle” includes plenty to mull over and its commentary on women’s social standing in the 1700s is pointed. Life for women of any skin color depended on money and connections and as Austen loved to point out, the marrying game was an essential way of life for many of the fairer sex. Women of color were rarely ever in a position to worry about making a good match or finding true love. That’s what makes this such an interesting story, if it sometimes unfolds with the prettiness and soap opera turns of a Downton Abbey episode.

The painting in question shows the young Lady Elizabeth Murray and a bi-racial companion circa 1778 and hangs at the Scone Palace in Scotland. Investigation by screenwriter Misan Sagay revealed the African to be Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a British Navy Captain, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and a slave. (The film does not explore this union and we are left to wonder as to the circumstances surrounding their relationship). However Lindsay is decent enough to take custody of the child and entrust her to the keeping of his rich uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkenson), who also happens to be the Chief Justice of England.

It almost seems too much of a coincidence that Lord Mansfield would have the companionship of an African girl in his home as the issues of abolition start to press upon the British Isles. And initially, Asante lets us dangle as we wonder where the aristocrat stands on slavery and how the young Dido will be treated. Lady Mansfield (a superb Emily Watson) makes no pretense of hiding her shock that her great-niece is a “mulatto”.  But Dido is loved and raised alongside the Mansfield’s other great-niece Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) and the two women become firm friends.

Dido (now played beautifully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) grows up with fine things. She is educated and raised with privilege. But she is not quite accepted as a blood relative.  She is not permitted to dine with the family, yet not expected to dine with the servants. But when she inherits her father’s fortune, she becomes infinitely more desirable in society than her half-cousin, who is well-born, but without a fortune of her own. Thus “Belle” becomes more about money and gender than race as even the most bigoted Brits, notably Lady Ashford (a wickedly entertaining Miranda Richardson) seeks Dido out for her marriageable son.

Not much is really known about the real Dido so the script takes some license with a love-story that develops between Dido and a local legal student John Davinier (Sam Reid). But the facts of the Zong massacre of 1781 are presented with horrific truth, and this case of African slaves being thrown overboard for insurance money comes before Lord Mansfield who is tasked with ruling on a case of huge, historic import. It is speculation as to whether he was influenced by the bright, charming girl in his home or whether he was a man of decency before Dido entered his life.  But certainly, this tasteful costume drama would have us believe that an 18th century woman of slave descent helped turn the tide against this most shameful period in our past.

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