We live in uncertain times, with a racial divide that continues to plague and infect our social fabric, threatening the solidarity of a nation founded on principles of justice and equality for all. Never in my lifetime have I witnessed such a derisory and politicized thrust to ignite, renew and stir abject contempt between blacks and whites; to deliberately incite and haul out the ancient specters of Uncle Thomism as though virtually no progress has been made in the intervening centuries since the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s immortal literary classic. The subject of racial prejudice has remained ever present in American history, perhaps because it can never, or rather, ought never to be forgotten or mislaid within the annals of time. But banning The Dukes of Hazzard on the basis that its trademarked ‘General Lee’ Charger sports the flag of the rebellion, or, campaigning for the obliteration of such iconic touchstones in the entertainment industry as Gone With The Wind and Song of the South on the basis ‘some’ may find such imagery offensive, is no more supportive to the cause of stamping out racism than suggesting an end to poverty by denying Steinbeck his Grapes of Wrath. In fact, in and of itself, such idiotic precedence and fear-mongering remain equally as hateful statements of another social prejudice; the first step toward the ominous, and yet strangely – dangerously - appealing Hitlerian road to censorship.
I have begun my review of Amma Asante’s superbly executed period drama, Belle (2013) with a formal plea of reconsideration, primarily directed at those responsible for this present-day implosion festering as America’s cultural divide; not because Asante’s movie directly addresses the current situation in America at all (in fact, the movie is all about a landmark decision against such racial intolerance in 1800’s Britain), but rather, because from the vantage of two years removed, Asante’s message of ‘promise and hope’ – unlike the derisive and failed promises made in America nearly eight years before, for ‘hope and change,’ point to an alternative purpose and approach that might diffuse and surrender our conflicted notions of ‘solving’ any multifaceted challenge, bordering on a national crisis, merely through ever escalating acts of embittered violence. If the wounds of history are to be mended – if, in fact, never entirely healed - then first and foremost, they must be contemplated by keener probative minds, clear-eyed and unencumbered by the obvious sense of entitlement and rage afflicting so many present-day pundits, who continue to suggest they crusade for a cause other than their own, when in reality, they have yet to even consider any achievement for a peaceable reconciliation, never more eloquently expressed than by the immortal words and doctrines spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In England’s Kenwood House there hangs a most remarkable portrait painted in 1779, depicting the observable mutual affections shared by two women: ‘sisters’ in the purest sense of the word; not of blood or even race, but by an affectionate bond of shared humanity, compassion and understanding. In reality, Dido Elizabeth Belle (played in Asante’s film with spectacular humility, passion and questioning tenacity by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Lady Elizabeth Murray (the sublimely understated, Sarah Gadon) were cousins by an unlikely love match between British Captain, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman living in the West Indies. Asante’s direction, cribbing from Misan Sagay’s splendidly fictionalized screenplay, extols both the virtues as well as the vices of this rigidly structured caste system, exposing the similarities that bind all humanity together, despite outward physical differences, while magnifying the disparities of a social structure that would allow a woman of mixed racial heritage to occupy the same living quarters as the rest of her family within a stately manor house, yet preclude her from sharing supper at the same table when guests are present. Belle boasts all the lavishness of a sumptuously mounted period melodrama, augmented by an outstanding cast.
Limitations in the historical record have afforded Asante and Sagay unprecedented economy to be both inspired by the painting and yet creatively at liberty to ply their craft as authors of this richly satisfying historical fiction. Each has shown great discipline in their artistic license. What is known for certain is William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield (and great uncle to Dido and Elizabeth) was also Lord Chief Justice from 1756 to 1788. During his tenure in office he presided over two very important cases: Somerset v Stewart in 1772 and the Zong insurance claims case of 1783; the latter proving a fascinating subtext for the movie, Belle. Each of Mansfield’s rulings helped lay the groundwork for Britain’s Slave Trade Act of 1807; then, considered a progressive piece of legislation. Dido’s involvement in the Zong case, absconding with critical files she later shares with John Davinier (Sam Reid), the impoverished son of a vicar, come to study law at her uncle’s house, and the man desperately in love with her, whom she too will come to love and marry in the end, is wholly fabricated, as is actor, Tom Wilkinson’s Mansfield, adjudicating wisely in favor of the insurance company not to pay out its claim, not on a point of law; rather, a bold and progressive assertion to abolish slavery, which he comes to regard as an abomination, thanks to Dido’s imploring. John is a staunch advocate for social reform. But both men brought to the brink of conflict, then resolution in their love for Dido. It all weaves a miraculous spell of pure conjecture, intoxicatingly romantic and satisfying as cinema fiction. Personally, I leave truth to history. In movies, I seek intelligence and artistry above all else, and Belle has both commodities in spades.
Our story begins in 1769 with Britain a capital of the slave trade. Eight year old Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay is rescued from her impoverished circumstances by her natural father, the kindly Sir John, a British Royal Navy officer who loved her mother, now deceased. Forced to embark upon another campaign at sea for King and country, Lindsay entrusts the welfare of his daughter to his uncle, William Murray Mansfield and his kindly wife, Lady Elizabeth (Emily Watson) and a spinster aunt, Lady Mary (Penelope Wilton); all of whom reside at the pastoral retreat, Kenwood House in Hampstead. At first, Mansfield is outraged Lindsay should have concealed Dido’s mixed heritage from the family. “Have you not considered my position, boy?” he sternly chides his nephew. However, Mansfield is not without compassion. He and his wife elect to raise Dido as a free gentlewoman, referring to her as a playmate for their other niece, Lady Elizabeth, who came to their care after her mother’s death and father’s remarriage. The girls are a great comfort to one another and evolve into the best of friends throughout their childhood and youth.
Upon entering adulthood, Lord Mansfield commissions a noted painter to immortalize their likenesses. Dido is stricken with nervousness at the prospect, inadvertently interrupting a conversation between Mansfield and his new pupil, John Davinier. Earlier, Dido and John had gotten off to a very rocky start. Again, here he attempts to remain above her curt replies, meant to discourage any conversation. In Dido’s presence, Mansfield asks John what he believes is the purpose of the law. “To provide certainty where otherwise none might exist,” is his reply. John then cites the Zong case as his example, suggesting the slave owners ditched their human cargo, claiming it to be diseased property, when in reality they planned to fetch a more handsome price by drowning the slaves to collect the insurance money. Dido is understandably horrified to learn of this event, more so when Mansfield defends the company’s decision to collect on the claim based solely on a point of law. Neither man knows the particulars of what transpired aboard the slave ship as yet, so their opposing viewpoints are based on nothing more substantial than pure conjecture.
A letter arrives at Kenwood, explaining Dido’s father has died in service to the King. In his Will, Lord Lindsay has bequeathed Dido an inheritance of £2,000 a year; in essence, insuring she is to remain her own woman and sustain herself without taking a husband. By contrast, Lady Elizabeth has been left no income by her father, whose new wife has since become his sole heir. The focus of the story now shifts toward acquiring a rich husband for Elizabeth. Soon, she becomes fixated on James Ashford (Tom Felton), a contemptable young man whose extreme racial prejudice colors his opinion of Dido and her friendship with his older brother, Oliver (James Norton), who is, in fact, quite smitten with her. Alas, upon learning of Dido’s inheritance, the prospect of marriage acquires a new and unflattering allure neither girl is, as yet, made aware. Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) is a sly and arrogant prig, conscious of Oliver’s lack of inheritance and therefore, like Elizabeth, his dependence on securing a rich spouse to support him. The courting commences - awkwardly; James eventually ordering Dido to steer clear of Oliver, placing his hands on her person in a most unflattering way. Dido confides to Elizabeth that James is an unsuitable love match. However, colored by her own desperation to marry, Elizabeth admonishes Dido, despite Dido offering Elizabeth a portion of her own dowry, thus making both women independent.
Dido, who has been helping Mansfield in his correspondences on the Zong case, and debating him at the breakfast table no less, begins to siphon information to John which she believes will advance the abolitionists’ cause. Unaware of these clandestine rendezvous, Mansfield is nevertheless displeased with John’s insistence to overturn a point of law. Believing John is responsible for Dido’s spirited interest in the case, Mansfield orders him not to see his niece anymore. Meanwhile, Lady Mary seeks to steer Dido into an engagement with Oliver, mostly out of concern the girl might become a spinster like herself; a lonely existence she hopes to avert for her niece. James, who has discovered Elizabeth is penniless, loses all interest in pursuing their ‘romance’ – such as it was.
Eventually, Lord Mansfield begins to suspect Dido of visiting John at a local pub near the waterfront to share secret information with him about the Zong case. Mansfield tails Dido’s carriage to the wharf and confronts the pair; John declaring openly he will not stand by passively on the Zong case, but also passionately professing his abiding love for Dido. A short while later, Lady Ashford and Oliver are summoned to Kenwood in Lord Mansfield’s presence. It seems Dido has elected to refuse Oliver’s proposal of marriage. Lady Ashford is outraged. How dare a mulatto suppose herself to be above the station of a nobleman? But Dido reveals to Lady Ashford certain truths about her family; of their ignoble quest to have their sons marry for money rather than love, and of Lady Ashford’s bias toward her which, in time, would certainly drive a wedge into the heart of their union.
The painting of Dido and Elizabeth illustrates both women as contemporaries. Dido is stricken by the hypocrisy. How can the art reveal a truth that the reality of her situation in life and the society she resides in is as yet unwilling to embrace? Still, Dido suggests to Lord Mansfield the portrait proves he can defy convention – perhaps, even the rule of law, not on a matter of point, but to a higher justice for which it must be bent in order to comply. Mansfield is moved by her argument. Dido sneaks into the gallery of the Inn of Court as Lord Mansfield rules against the Gregson slave-trading syndicate. There will be no insurance payout. The ship’s officers were unjust in destroying their human cargo. Indeed, their sailing route illustrates they had plenty of opportunities to dock at various ports for fresh portable water but did not; later, claiming to have murdered their slave cargo to conserve their depleted rations. Instead, Lord Mansfield reasons the company, knowing the overcrowded conditions caused the slaves to become sick, thereby unlikely to fetch a fair price at auction, were negligible in sacrificing them for the much higher insurance claim sure to follow. Having adjudicated wisely, Lord Mansfield emerges from court in time to observe John and Dido in each other’s arms. Indeed, she has found the ideal suitor who will satisfy her in matters of love as well as temperament. Realizing John possess certain merits as a born solicitor, Mansfield offers to procure him an apprenticeship.
Belle achieves a level of extraordinary satisfaction; Simon Bowles’ exquisite production design lensed to perfection by Ben Smithard’s sublime cinematography. Claudio Campana and Ben Smith’s art direction is, likewise, impeccable; the entire production imbued with a level of craftsmanship rarely seen in American movie-making these days. Certainly, nothing like it has been witnessed since the days of Merchant/Ivory. It’s an elegant style, lush and evocative; a moving tableau with well-bred, though occasionally less than well-mannered citizenry occupying its cultured social circles and manicured gardens, prone to the gallant and exuberantly staged garden party, complete with fireworks and a gavotte. Gorgeous film-making, however, will only get you so far.
But Belle is imbued with superb performances as well; beginning with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s predominant star-making turn as Dido ‘Belle’. She is appropriately demure, self-sacrificing, yet undiminished and triumphant in her increasingly impassioned declarations, even as she steadily acquires a moral compass and social conscience directly at odds with the courtly and polished façade of social mores and mannerisms designed to keep her in her place. It really is a sensitive performance, stirred with unquenchable fires of frustration that intersect an internal music of the imperishable soul, yearning to come to terms with a new world that, according to the movie, she has had a hand in helping, not only to master, but mold. The rest of the cast, particularly Tom Wilkinson, offer stellar support. But Belle remains Gugu’s show and she runs the gamut from ‘A’ to ‘Z’ with peerless effort.
20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment, via their ‘Searchlight’ label has released a positively stunning 1080p hi-def transfer. Shot digitally, this gorgeous image exhibits all the blessings of a period epic photographed on film; richly saturated hues, superb clarity and sumptuous amounts of fine detail oozing from the peripheries of every frame. ‘Wow’ doesn’t begin to describe the image quality, exhibiting very strong contrast levels even during the dimly lit dinner scenes and others shot under the cover of night and natural lighting conditions. Belle is a resplendent period costume piece and this hi-def transfer does virtually every inch of it justice. Using location to maximum effect, a few brief CGI sequences in the navy yard appear just a tad more softly focused by comparison. But this is a minor quibble. There are no untoward digital anomalies. The image is solid, sharp and almost perfect.
The 5.1 DTS audio is appropriately placed with atmospheric subtleties that truly enliven the sound field. There is very nice contrast between the cluttered noisiness of London and the vivacious breezes blowing through the open-air courtyards at Kenwood; Rachel Portman’s evocative underscore enveloping the surround channels. Extras are rather disappointing. What they boil down to are a series of very brief junkets slapped together at the time the movie was being made. Cumulatively, they present a very superficial ‘look’ at the behind-the-scenes investment of time and money. We get only snippets of reflection from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson and director, Amma Asante that barely scratch the surface. Disappointing, but typically assembled fluff stuff to bolster interest in the movie prior to its release. Bottom line: Belle is a resplendent human saga whose attributes place it just this side of a bona fide masterpiece. It deserves to be seen and treasured. The Blu-ray gifts us the pluperfect home-viewing experience. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)