Belle

May 10, 2014
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in 'Belle' (2013)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in 'Belle' (2013)

It’s impossible not to view Amma Asante’s Belle in relation to Steve McQueen’s phenomenally successful 12 Years a Slave. Both films are by black British directors, both deal with the theme of slavery. Admirers of 12 Years a Slave might say that one film is an entertainment, the other a work of art. But there is a place for intelligent entertainment, and room for scepticism in regards to any artistic expression.

One could argue that Asante takes the soft approach to a subject McQueen portrays in uncompromisingly brutal terms. On the other hand, there is a facility in Asante’s work that shows up the awkwardness of McQueen’s directorial style. Asante’s only other feature was an acclaimed drama about delinquent children called A Way of Life (2004), but Belle has all the hallmarks of one of those BBC adaptations of a classic novel.

McQueen’s movie followed the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. Belle is also based on a true story, but so little is known about the life of the protagonist that Asante and her scriptwriter, Misan Sagay, have exercised considerable poetic licence in bringing her to the screen. Try to imagine a Jane Austen novel in which the heroine’s problems spring from her ethnicity rather than her lack of a dowry or social standing.

There is a small problem here because those plots which worked so well for Jane Austen have now been thoroughly debased by Mills & Boon. Belle doesn’t escape these associations but it provides enough twists to keep us interested from start to finish. The story may be predictable, the dialogue slightly stilted and the music less than subtle, but the entire package is greater than the sum of its parts.

It also benefits from a strong cast, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw making the most of her chances in the lead role of Dido, and Tom Wilkinson putting in a convincing performance as her guardian.

The real Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral John Lindsay and a slave named Maria Belle. Upon the death of Dido’s mother, Lindsay sent the girl to live with his uncle, William Murray, who happened to be 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice. She would be raised at Kenwood House alongside her cousin, Elizabeth, the illegimate daughter of another of Lord Mansfield’s nephews. A painting attributed to Johann Zoffany shows the two girls as they prepared to enter society.

As we know from Jane Austen, genteel British society at that time was a meat market swathed in every form of hypocrisy. In terms of eligibility Dido was a good catch, having inherited a large sum of money from her father. The problem was her skin colour, which rendered her unacceptable to many of the best families. Her cousin was racially pure but devoid of funds.

These dilemmas are dramatised in the film when the cousins are courted by two aristocratic brothers. The younger is willing to ‘overlook’ Belle’s pigmentation, to get his hands on her dowry. The elder is a vehement racist who pays court to Elizabeth under the mistaken impression she is an heiress.

The real love interest arrives in the form of a young law student, John Davinier (Sam Reid), the son of a humble clergyman. Davinier is an outspoken opponent of slavery who is being tutored by Lord Mansfield at exactly the time when the great man is engaged in the most momentous judgement of his career – the case of the slave ship, Zong.

In November 1781, when water supplies ran low on a voyage to Jamaica, the crew of the Zong pitched 142 slaves into the ocean and left them to drown. The owners of the vessel subsequently lodged a claim with an insurance company for their lost cargo. The insurers objected, refused to pay and were taken to court. Although the first trial was decided in favour of the owners, the insurance company appealed, and the case was heard by the King’s Bench, under Lord Mansfield, in 1783.

The filmmakers have taken considerable liberties with the Zong case, which is portrayed as a momentous turning point in the abolition of slavery in Britain. In fact slavery would be legal for another 24 years. J.M.W.Turner’s great painting The Slave Ship, based on the Zong incident, was made 57 years later, in 1840.

In Belle historical truth is sacrificed for dramatic purposes. Dido undergoes a little consciousness-raising, developing a kind of radicalism that would be more in tune with the 1960s. John Davinier reveals his idealism and integrity, while Lord Mansfield comes across as wise and paternal. It’s all highly satisfactory, so who cares about the facts!

The power of the story resides in the many examples of casual racism that reflect the attitudes of that era. There are few occasions when Dido suffers direct racial abuse, but many small instances of her ambiguous social status. She dines with the family when they are alone at home, but by herself when they are entertaining guests. “I am too high to eat with the servants, too low to join you at dinner,” she complains.

When she meets with black servants, she feels awkward playing the lady. “I don’t know that I find myself anywhere,” she says. It’s fictionalised, but not far-fetched. Asante wants us to share Dido’s puzzlement and indignation. The story is a reminder that equality is a hard-won right, a triumph of reason over the instinctual distrust of those who are different to ourselves.

Belle
Directed by Amma Asante
Screenplay by Misan Sagay
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, James Norton
UK, rated PG, 104 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 10 May, 2014.

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