Inspired by a painting, Belle filters 18th-century politics into a pretty portrait.
May 11, 2014
It is from a painting that Belle springs, inspired by the study of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray. When the canvas was commissioned in 18th-century England, Dido's placing on equal footing defied convention. Though bonded by blood and brought up in privilege, Dido's heritage as the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman coloured her as inferior to her relatives.
In bringing the fictionalised story behind this important image to the screen, director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay infer the details of their subject's rallying against inequality. Within lushly staged period confines, they tell a tale of a sidelined but never surrendering heroine, blessed with freedom yet intent on navigating discriminatory practices and engrained racism in a time in which slavery was considered crucial to the country's continued economic prosperity. Dido is introduced as a child (Lauren Julien-Box), taken by her father (Matthew Goode) to his uncle, William Murray, Chief Justice and 1st Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), upon the death of her mother. William and his wife (Emily Watson) are apprehensive on account of Dido's interracial status but agree to raise her alongside Elizabeth (Cara Jenkins), the other grand-niece in their care.
As a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) watches as Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) navigates the necessary courtship formalities to find a husband, wanting her own romance even when warned of its impossibility. Asante and Sagay set the scene for a Jane Austen-style depiction of social mores and romantic dramas, the restrictions placed upon women of the time and their need to marry to secure their futures on display. Dido's unique standing, immersed in the intricacies but set apart from their necessities, adds a different perspective to the seen-before antics. Her own love triangle with the social-climbing Oliver Ashford (James Norton) and idealistic vicar's son John Davinier (Sam Reid) is couched in her quest for fair treatment. The interweaving of the landmark Zong massacre trial, requiring an assessment of the worth of the enchained by William, adds historical weight. With its protagonist straddling two worlds with uncertainty, and its content endeavouring to combine melodrama and commentary into a cohesive whole, it is unsurprising that the film wavers in balancing its layers of duality.
Though competing components are filmed with a handsome eye, assembled in the service of an affecting outcome, and performed with elegance and importance by a talented cast, dissonance lingers. The ideas reach for something more; however, the execution remains handsome yet standard. That discord is a minor trifle in an effort shaded with style and substance – but, for all its striving and success, Belle simply filters politics into a pretty portrait.
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