Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay’s Belle is a beautiful blend of a Jane Austen novel about women forced to contend with male-centered marital prospects with the social concern of Michael Apted’s 2006 film Amazing Grace which dealt with the British anti-slavery leader William Wilberforce. Both films deal with the themes of prejudice and the battle against slavery in 18th century England, but approach it from different sides of the issue—Amazing Grace from that of the abolitionists’, and Asante’s film from that of one of the victim’s, Belle, a young mixed-race woman who learns to refuse to remain a victim. Thus the new film should appeal to two audiences, those that love a love story amidst sumptuous surroundings, and those seeking a social justice film that, despite being set in the past, still has great relevance.
Loosely based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of an aristocratic Royal Navy captain (Matthew Goode) and a Caribbean slave, the film was inspired by the painting “Dido and Elizabeth” at Scone Palace in Scotland. The painting shows two young ladies in 18th century aristocratic dress, clearly depicted as equals, yet the one on the left is a “Negro.” The script, “based on a true story,” imaginatively seeks to fill in the gaps in the historical record.
The story begins with the then Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) bringing his little illegitimate daughter to his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson). His lover has died, and he wants to insure that their daughter whom he has named Dido Elizabeth Belle will have a proper upbringing, with his being always away at sea. Lord Mansfield is the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and so his taking a girl deemed a mulatto into his household is no small matter. However, after getting over their initial shock at the girl’s mixed race (Lindsay had not told them in advance), he and his wife agree to do so. They will have the considerable aid of the Lord’s unmarried sister Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton). Later as they look out the window to watch Dido, as they prefer to call Belle, playing with Elizabeth, the other niece the childless couple is raising, they already express their concern for the girl’s marriage prospects in England’s racist society.
Jump ahead 15 years, and now Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who have grown as sisters, are at the age of being courted by prospective suitors. The irony is that Belle, having a good inheritance left to her by her father, having died at sea after reaching the rank of Admiral, has all the money required for the dowry of a good marriage, whereas Elizabeth is almost penniless, and thus unlikely to attract a moneyed suitor. The big obstacle for Dido is her race, and that for Elizabeth is her lack of money. The latter sighs to Belle late in the film, “We are but [men’s] property”—a sentiment worthy of Jane Austen.
Belle is raised as a companion and not a servant of Elizabeth, and thus, as can be seen in the famous painting, dresses as well as her “sister” and also receives the same education in languages, music, and literature. But, when the Mansfields entertain guests, she is not allowed to dine with the family, Lord and Lady Mansfield apparently bowing to the racial feelings of their peers. Dido questions him about this treatment, noting that she is, “Too high in rank to dine with the servants, but too low to dine with the family?” Those feelings are voiced by one of their guests when Belle joins the guests for the after dinner coffee: when introduced to Belle, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) remarks, ”I had no idea she’d be so…black.”
The catty Lady is in the market for suitable mates for her two sons Oliver (James Norton) and James (Tom Felton). During their visit the nasty James denigrates Belle in a snide remark to his brother. Across the room Belle is shown blithely unaware of the racist tone of the whispered remarks. Oliver, however, is attracted by Dido’s beauty, and subsequently revealed intelligence and wit. Despite his brother’s disapproval, he decides to court her. James for a while seeks to woo Elizabeth, but when he discovers she will bring no wealth or property with her, he quickly drops her for a better prospect. One of the most powerful confrontations in the film will be that of his manhandling Belle at a garden reception, sneering at her racial status, and Belle’s rapier-tongued reply that puts him in his place. This is quickly followed by Elizabeth, not yet aware that James has spurned her, becoming deeply upset when Belle tries to tell her that James is not worthy of her. She even calls Bell a liar when her cousin reveals the scoundrel’s attack on her, accepting the veracity of the story only after she reads of James’ engagement to another woman.
In 1783, Lord Mansfield as High Chief Justice is struggling with his decision in what the political pamphlets of the time called “The Zong Case,” one dealing with what anti-slavery advocates called the Zong Massacre. In 1781 142 Africans, aboard a slave ship named Zong and suffering from disease and the ravages of the Middle Passage, were thrown overboard on the pretext that there was not enough water and food for both crew and “cargo.” The owners and the insurance company were in a dispute over payment for the loss of the “cargo.” A lower court had found in favor of the ship owners, and so the insurers had appealed the decision to the higher court.
Now Belle has grown in her understanding of English racist practices through her own experience and from several contacts with the would-be lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid), a fervent abolitionist and son of a vicar. The two had started out on the wrong foot, and it takes a while for Belle to warm to him. But he had been drawn to her from the first moment of their unfortunate first meeting. For a brief time he serves as a clerk for Lord Mansfield, but his abolitionist views and his attraction to Belle lead the judge to fire him and forbid further contact. Such statements as, “Human beings cannot be priced. Humans are priceless” leads Belle to reassess her opinion of the young man. She gives her heart to Davinier, slipping out of the house for furtive meetings concerning the case. She discovers and shares with Lord Mansfield some evidence that disproves the claim of the Zong’s crew, leading the judge to a decision that will virtually make slavery illegal in England and Wales (more on this later). Belle’s discovery is the product of the writer’s imagination, but historians do suggest that her presence in Lord Mansfield’s household was an influence in his decision.
One of the strengths of the film is the way in which Belle’s self-understanding develops, resulting in her refusal to accept society’s adverse judgment of her and her kind. Early in the film we see her still accepting her inferiority when she looks with great anguish into a mirror. Crying, she grasps her skin as if she would strip it away, rejecting its dark complexion just as much as her detractors had. I was reminded of this similar self-rejection two centuries later when thousands of black Americans bought creams “guaranteed” to lighten their complexion, and thus supposedly making the user more acceptable to the larger society. That “Black is Beautiful” campaign in the Sixties was indeed necessary! No doubt that Belle could have embraced such a slogan is beautifully depicted in the sequence in which she sits uneasily for the artist at work on the famous painting. She is obviously fearful, perhaps thinking how she would be portrayed alongside her beautiful cousin. When at last she sees the finished painting the face of the actress shows not only relief but also the awareness that she truly is beautiful. There is a self-acceptance or self-assurance that society’s racists can no longer disturb.
This self-assurance is strongly shown in the scene that was so moving that the screening audience broke out into applause and cheers. Oliver had proposed marriage to Belle, much to the relief and joy of Lady Mansfield and Lady Ashford listening just outside the parlor door. Belle agrees to think about it, but eventually decides to decline. She has by now found that John Davinier is her true soul mate. Lady Ashford, with her son Oliver in tow, visits Lord and Lady Mansfield to appeal Belle’s rejection. No doubt the dear lady is concerned at losing out on Belle’s considerable fortune. When she demands to know why Belle has turned down what she considers such a worthy proposal, Belle bluntly tells her that she would not think of marrying into a family in which her race was considered odious.
The film might move slowly for American audiences, but it has many such moments that stir the soul. As with most historical films, the script is loose with the historical facts. In the case of Lord Mansfield it combines two cases separated by almost two decades: it was in a 1772 case (Somerset v Stewart Case, Lord Mansfield) that the Judge actually declared that slavery is “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law”—the latter referring to a law passed by Parliament. The effect of this decision was to make slavery illegal in Great Britain itself, certainly a great step that highly encouraged the nascent abolitionist movement of the time (so wonderfully depicted in Amazing Grace). And aside from its anti-racist theme, the film’s love story will gladden the heart of the myriad of Jane Austen fans. John Davinier is a good stand-in for Mr. Darcy, and Belle can certainly hold her own with Elizabeth Bennet—even Austen’s title Pride and Prejudice could apply to this film.
The review with reflection/discussion questions will be available for subscribers in the June 2014 issue of Visual Parables. You can subscribe–and have access to even more reviews and articles in back issues–by going to the Visual Parables Store.