28 June 2014

"You Are Above Reducing Yourself for the Sake of Rank"

My cinema attendance has been pretty woeful so far this year, but I did find time to see Amma Asante's new movie Belle this evening at my local, the Shortwave in Bermondsey. I saw the US trailer for the movie before a screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel in New York and couldn't tell whether Belle would be the thoughtful and thought-provoking tale of a fascinating but little known historical figure, or a cheesy, bodice-buster. Happily, it turned out to be more of the former, with a healthy dose of legal drama.

The film is inspired by a 1779 painting of two young women: Lady Elizabeth Murray and her mixed-race cousin, Dido Elizabeth Belle. Their equal position in the portrait prompted interest in the hitherto little known story of Dido — the illegitimate daughter of Captain John Lindsay and Maria Belle, an enslaved woman in the West Indies — who was raised with her cousin by their great-uncle, the Earl of Mansfield. As the film opens, Captain Lindsay (Matthew Goode) takes the young Dido to the Hampstead residence of his uncle, Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), and his wife (Emily Watson), asking them to raise his mixed-raise daughter alongside her cousin Elizabeth — their other great niece. Somewhat reluctantly, the Mansfields eventually agree — and Lindsay heads off to sea again.

Years later, and Dido (now played by the brilliant Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) are looking forward to making their d├ębut in London society. Although they are conscious of the differences between them, neither really understands why Dido isn't allowed to eat dinner with her family or with the servants. In addition, Dido finds herself in a stronger position than her cousin, in some ways, after she finds out that her father has perished at sea, leaving her a small inheritance.

In theory, Elizabeth should receive a sizeable inheritance from her father, but the said father is too busy living it up with his second wife abroad and has abandoned his eldest daughter. This means that when the cousins meet the brothers Grimm Ashford — older, nastier James (played by Draco Malfoy) and younger, slightly more ambiguous Oliver (James Norton) — it is unclear which woman stands a stronger chance of making a match. Certainly, Mother Ashford (Miranda Richardson) couldn't imagine anything worse than having Dido as her daughter-in-law until she finds out about her income, while Elizabeth plummets rapidly in Lady Ashford's expectations when the latter learns of the former's fortunes — or lack thereof.

Meanwhile, a friendship develops between Dido and John Davinier (Sam Reid), a promising would-be lawyer who is doing his best to sway Mansfield's opinion on the Zong massacre case Mansfield is working on, the outcome of which could have implications for the whole British slave-trade industry. Mansfield is less impressed with Davinier's 'overly idealistic' world-view, and he certainly doesn't see Davinier — the son of a vicar — as a suitable suitor for his great-niece. 142 slaves were thrown overboard to drown by sailors of the Zong who claimed there wasn't enough water to go round. In fact, the slaves' poor living conditions had led to the spread of disease, which would have meant they were worth more to the slave-trade company in insurance money than alive. Unsurprisingly, the insurers cried fraud. This is probably the only film where viewers want an insurance company to win the case!

Although Belle does veer into Austen territory at times, especially in some of the overly sentimental scenes between Dido and Davinier, it's a very compelling film, anchored by the strong central performance from Mbatha-Raw. The scene in which Dido sits in front of a mirror, cursing her complexion and clawing at her face is particularly hard to watch. The other actors in leading roles were perfectly fine, but didn't stand out. Elizabeth, who we are told several times is a feisty lass, was particularly wet, but I'm not sure that is necessarily Gadon's fault, and the scenes with the two cousins alone together were very strong.

One silly thing that did distract me was that the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford was playing the part of the High Court in London. As such, Dido is seen to hop in a carriage in Bedford Square and arrive some 50 miles down the road practically before her great-uncle has finished his opening remarks in the Zong case. Oxford is, of course, very attractive and filled with 18th century architecture, so it's perfectly understandable that they wanted to film there. This quibble aside, Belle tells a fascinating story set in a period that was far from England's finest hour.

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