“Belle” – a film review by Gary Chew
Her name is Dido. She is not the Queen of Carthage but the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay and Maria Belle, an African slave. Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is not unlike the Queen call Dido. In the film “Belle,” Dido’s full name is Dido Elizabeth Belle. (Mbatha-Raw was born in the UK of a Caucasian mother and a black father.)
Sir John (Matthew Goode), although taking full responsibility for Dido since her mother has died, must leave the girl to pursue and maintain his position as a British admiral. Remember: Aeneas left the Dido of an earlier time.
Sir John tasks his uncle, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansford (Tom Wilkinson), to care for Dido. William is the lord chief justice of the land and, as history has it, locked in a controversial legal issue that pits English slave traders against a business firm insuring their cargo. With premeditation, the traders have drowned slaves at sea while being transported. It’s 1769. Slave trading is big business.
No murder charges here, just whether the insurance company should pay or not. Lord Murray must singly hand down the decision while acting as the legal guardian of this young woman who is half black, beautiful and exquisitely educated. At the keyboard, Dido wows guests who visit the Murray Estate with her prowess playing J. S. Bach.
Dido’s companion and cousin is Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), who is white and about the same age. She had been abandoned earlier by her penniless father, another nephew of Lord Murray. The girls are raised by William and his family as if they’re sisters, although the pair is not represented to anyone as such.
Courting is a large part of “Belle.” Young gentlemen, oh so polite, circulate through the social circles of Dido and Elizabeth. One is less well-positioned; the son of the local vicar. He’s John Davinier (Sam Reid), an idealistic man driven to change the cultural attitude regarding class and race in his country. Young Davinier’s best line in the movie is, “What is right is not impossible!”
Two other young men attracted to Dido and Elizabeth are the aristocratic Ashford brothers, Oliver (James Norton) and James. Tom Felton, who played a nemesis of Harry Potter, proves to be almost as offensive toward Dido in the role of brother James.
Peripherally are Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) and Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton), a spinster who has lived with the Mansfields for a long time. The women — as you’d imagine in a period film — take a back seat to it all, but quietly abide the tribulations of the two younger women of the house.
Then there’s the juicy role of Lady Ashford, extravagantly played by Miranda Richardson. The perspective Lady Ashford maintains could be described as abhorrent, but I don’t want to put words in my mouth.
With little fanfare, “Belle” defines true love. It takes place just short of a century’s time prior to the American Civil War, and might be called a historical precursor to “12 Years A Slave” without the depicted brutality. Another way to define it might be: a moving and important story that has “Jane Austen sitting quietly and discreetly — yet defiantly — ‘aboard’ the Underground Railroad.”
“Belle” was directed by Amma Asante, a 45 year-old English-born black woman. Her father and mother emigrated to the UK from Ghana; he an accountant … she ran the family-owned African deli and did housecleaning.