Thursday, May 22, 2014

Belle: Monday, May 19 2014

Directed by Amma Asante, written by Misan Sagay, Belle stars Guga Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle, and Tom Wilkinson as William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield. The acting is excellent, although the characters are depicted through present-day eyes, not developed as real characters from their times. The direction was a little slow, was the comment by my friends, Rosemary and Lois.

Almost too carefully-written, Belle gave me the impression that the people connected with making this film were not truly into the times of Dido, and were deliberately not passing judgement obviously on those involved in the life of Dido. The story was presented factually, almost as a documentary, augmented with some imaginary additions, and this makes the film less insightful than it might have been. I felt I was being led to pass some sort of judgment on the characters, and that this was expected.

Belle presents the nuances of English, upper-class society in the 1700s. It says a great deal for Lord Mansfield that he took into his home, Dido, who was in the thinking of those days, the illegitimate daughter of his nephew, Admiral Sir John Lindsay, and Maria Bell, an African slave. Dido's illegitimacy was much more important at that time than her colour. Admiral Lindsay and his legal wife were childless, and he had another illegitimate daughter and son, each by different women.

Belle is based on a true story, and the film was inspired by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle beside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. Commissioned by William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, then Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the portrait of his two nieces hung in Kenwood House, England, until 1922. It now hangs in Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland. The Murrays and Lindsays were Scottish. I like that in the portrait, Lady Elizabeth is portrayed as an upper-class young woman, while the exotic background of Dido's African mother is suggested, reflecting the thinking of that time.

What makes the portrait even more interesting, is that William Murray, Lord Manfield, was the Justice whose rulings on the Zong massacre became an important step in bringing slavery to an end in England. The Zong massacre was the name given to an incident when the captain of a ship carrying slaves, threw 142 overboard to drown. They were worth more in insurance payments, than as sickly cargo who couldn't be sold. Lord Mansfield did not approve of slavery, as he showed in his writings.

A pleasant, if shallow, film, Belle leaves something to think about.

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