Running Time: 104 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Amma Asante
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Tom Felton, Alan McKenna, Penelope Wilton, Sarah Gadon, James Norton, Sam Reid
After taking American History, every high school kid should be able to tell you what caused the American War for Independence: middle-class rebellions against taxation like the Stamp Act and the Hat Act, all passed by the British Parliament without representation by voters in the Thirteen Colonies. At the same time, one wonders how many college graduates can discuss changes, yes even a social revolution, that occurred within Britain at about the time the Mother Country was no longer the Mother Country. A great advantage of historical fiction is that its creators can reproduce not simply the dry, scholarly facts about societal changes but can convey the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the times in which the actions take place. “Johnny Tremain,” for example, is on Middle School readings lists, a fictionalized look at the American Revolution. BELLE should be on the movie list of every youngster even in elementary school (it is that rare film for adults rated PG) as this film, perhaps more than any other recent one, conveys the tumultuous times within Britain even as that country begins scaling down the places in Empire in which the sun still never set.
BELLE may be fiction, but it is closely based on the true story of Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, born in the UK), the love child of a wealthy British admiral, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and an enslaved woman in the Caribbean. The movie was inspired by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle beside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) which hung in England’s Kenwood House until 1922 and was transferred to the Scone Museum in Perthshire, Scotland. The script is by Misan Sagay whose special interest in the project lies in her tracing her ancestry to the title character Belle, who is called Dido throughout the story directed by Amma Asante, previously at the helm of the 2004 film A WAY OF LIFE, about a young woman charged with the care of a six-months’ old infant with the help of teen squatters.
BELLE is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, lavishly shot on location in the Isle of Man, Oxford and London using Sony’s F65 CineAlta digital production camera with Ian Wilson behind the lenses. The photography makes superb use of the landscape of Man, punctuated by Susie Lewis’s costumes. In the principal role, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, daughter of Anne Raw, a white nurse, and Patrick Mbatha, a South African doctor, is perhaps little known on this side of the Atlantic despite her roles in an abundance of tv dramas. Being herself a mulatto (a now obsolete term), she is ideally cast, a fortunate choice as well given her breadth and depth of performance from teary-eyed woman unsure of her place in society to a champion of the down-and-outs and woman largely responsible for an unexpectedly liberal decision by her caretaker, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson).
Blessed by Simon Bowles’ production design using a number of stately homes in the London area and the 18th Century look of Bristol Docks on the Isle of Man, BELLE tracks Dido from pre-pubescent in 1769 to marriageable age a decade or so later during a time that the British fought the American upstarts (though any sign of rebellion in the Colonies is completely unmentioned). Her role in the household of William Murray, the Chief Justice of England, and his snobbish wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) is an ambiguous one, best described as that of a woman who is “too high to dine with servants and not high enough to sup with the gentry.” A bosom buddy of her half-sister Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), she submerges herself in the role of a compliant woman with an unsteady identity in English society, but one who is courted by Oliver Ashford (James Norton) who is simply sniffing money (Belle is an heiress), a courtship encouraged by Oliver’s otherwise racist mother, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson). We in the audience hopes she opts for true love, even if the suitor is John Davinier (Sam Reid), the poor son of a vicar, but one who is a fierce abolitionist who in spirit joins the views of perhaps one-third of Britons that slavery, despite its centrality in the British economy, must be ended. (The UK abolished the slave trade in 1807 and beat the U.S. by thirty-two years in outlawing slavery altogether in 1833.)
The principal legal conflict is this: The crew of a ship bearing some 130 enslaved people, many diseased and considered incapable of commanding a price on shore, dumps the entire group overboard, drowning them. The captain, stating that the ship’s crew would be in danger of rebellion because of the alleged lack of water, makes a claim on the insurance company, stating that property has been lost. The legal point revolves around the question of whether live, human beings, can be considered human beings and thereby beyond the pale of the insurance company, or simply property subject to a legitimate claim for insurance. The outcome rests on the decision of one man, William Murray as Chief Justice, a fellow who has held conservative views during his time on the bench and is likely to find for the ship’s owners.
This is a picture that is riveting to an intelligent audience willing to listen closely to the gems of Misan Sagay’s screenplay and directed with a steady, sure, leisurely pace by Amma Asante. Nor does it hurt that Tom Wilkinson takes on a major supporting role while Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido embraces the essence of a mixed-race aristocrat at once an heiress and a social pariah.
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