Film review: “Belle”

Practically flawless. This is what one can say about the opening scene – and the rest of the film. Friends dragged me off to its first release in their town last week. Very glad they did, as this is another must-see-this-summer film!

This film is based on historical facts. Though it does play with them, the majority of the shocking and romantic facts are true. Even if this were not the case, it would be well worth watching. For the moment this film starts, you are sucked into the recreated world of 18th century England and Dido’s life and place in it.

Well-researched, well-acted costume drama seems to be a British prerogative these days. Thus, the film’s opening scene shows a London as it once must have been. Its sky-line is nearly obliterated by masts of sailing vessels. Cargo is brought on board, passengers disembark.

Among a ship’s passengers is a little girl whose mother has died. The girl is handed over to a father she does not know. A naval officer, John Lindsay has just received orders which will take him away again. So he brings his little daughter to the home of his aunt and uncle. The childless couple and their house-keeping spinster sister are already raising a young girl.

The problem is, that Dido Elizabeth Belle’s mother was an African slave. Her parents never married. So apart from being female and thus already a step lower on the 18th century hierarchical ladder, she is also illegitimate, coloured, penniless. The odds seem stacked high against this little girl.

At first, the family baulks. Nobody told them the girl was coloured. But in the end, the wealthy aristocratic family relents. Father and daughter will never meet again, though he will leave her his fortune.

The family will not call the girl Elizabeth, but by her other name: Dido. For Dido’s cousin is also called Elizabeth. Dido soon wins everybody over and will not be just a companion to her cousin. The girls will be raised as sisters and receive the same aristocratic upbringing.

Fast-forward over a decade and the girls are adolescents. Society and its rules start making trouble. When Elizabeth graduates from the governess’ table to dine with important family guests, Dido is only allowed to join everybody once dinner is finished.

Dido becomes an heiress, while Elizabeth remains penniless. Uncle and aunts need to find her a husband in London. They presume that Dido, though the richer of the two girls, will remain unmarried: she is illegitimate and a mulatto. But she is also highly intelligent, for at the family home, Dido works as a secretary for her uncle.

For the girls’ uncle is the first Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice. While he is mulling over an important case, the girls become acquainted with 18th century mercenary and money-focussed society. The girls meet more and less suitable marriage candidates. Aunt Margery finally tells them her sad love-story. It seems Dido will follow into her aunt’s footsteps.

But Dido also becomes involved in the case her uncle is dealing with as Lord Chief Justice. In the film, it is the Zong case. A horrible insurance fraud in which slaves were murdered. Whatever the Lord Chief Justice decides, it will have a major impact on legislation, on England’s economy, on the position of slaves in England and English colonies.

Of course, despite “trials and tribulations” everything works out just fine. So this film will satisfy various audiences and film lovers. There are a few hiccups though. For a start: it is highly unlikely anybody could keep their stockings white and their suits clean in 18th century docks.

Then the actors playing uncle, aunt Elizabeth and aunt Margery remain forever their age, while the girls are suddenly 10 years older. Yet it is nice to see many well known actors delivering excellent performances again. Thus Tom Felton who plays a baddy in the Harry Potter series, plays another one in “Belle”. It would have been nice to see him cast in a decent-guy role again.

The first part of the film follows historical events fairly accurately. From the moment, the girls turn adolescent, things become more fictionalised. This does not interfere with the  film’s narrative, plot, development and end-result though.

The real Dido was born in 1761 and her mother probably was not found aboard a Spanish ship. Dido also did not meet and marry her future – French – husband as the film suggests. It is a pity the film does not make more of aunt Margery and her (film) dislike of all things French, or that the real aunt Margery left Dido money as well. The real Dido was only set free in 1793, when she was already over 30 years old, which is also not stressed in the film.

Despite the occasional hiccups, this film comes close to perfection. What is thoroughly surprising is, that it took so long for such a smashing, nearly sensational story about Dido Elizabeth Belle and the Murray family, to be turned into an excellent film or tv series.

The horrifying case of the Zong is utterly true and was probably no incident. The majority of the audience will of course be unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge, that many people are still held in slavery. Moreover, the horrifying murder of the Zong cargo resembles the fate of many refugees these days. Something most viewers of the film will of course forget.

Though the film does not tell the history of Dido and Elizabeth faithfully, there exists a portrait of the two of them. It used to hang in Kenwood House, Dido’s home for over thirty years. It can now apparently be admired in Scone Palace. The Guardian has an interesting article about it. (Guardian “Dido Belle”.)

And anybody complaining about film director Amma Asante’s happy end … She merely followed in the footsteps of Dido and Elizabeth’s contemporary Jane Austen, by giving her “Mansfield Park” version of a true story a happy end.

“Belle” directed by Amma Asante, released in 2013, currently running in European cinemas.
YouTube trailer of “Belle”
Mansfield Park”, Jane Austen, paperback edition available through Penguin Classics or Oxford Classics.

Jane Austen mentions political themes in her novels, slave trade and slavery among them. In “Mansfield Park”, the Bertram’s family fortune seems to be partly derived from slavery, uncle Bertram travels to Antigua, while young Fanny Price is brought up in his family as the poor relation companion.

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