Belle injects Austenesque settings with abolitionist stirrings

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle

What would it be like, I wonder, to be a well-educated person of color whose guilty pleasure just happens to be period dramas by the likes of Jane Austen and George Eliot, populated almost entirely by rich white English people? Would you have to keep your literary/cinematic fandom hidden, lest your peers question your ideological commitment to social change? Until now, there hasn’t been all that much on the menu for folks who enjoy the romance of an 18th-century costume drama that boasts a fat art direction budget, but who also want it to pack a satisfying charge of sociopolitical critique of those benighted times. The British film Belle, released last year and directed by Amma Asante, takes us at least some of the way toward filling that gap.

Belle belongs to that ever-growing category of movies that are “inspired by” historical events, rather than “based on” them. Where needed for dramatic effect, it plays fast and loose with the facts, speculates freely where the facts are not recorded, telescopes events and merges characters. So, considering that the context of the narrative is a 1783 English legal case, Gregson v. Gilbert, that is regarded as a significant step toward the abolition of slavery, sticklers for factual detail will find much to quibble about in Belle’s version of the story. For the average moviegoer, it’s just an enjoyable and thought-provoking tale of a mixed-race woman growing up in an unusual position of privilege as a ward of the chief justice who ruled on the case: William Murray, the First Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson).

The luminously beautiful English/South African actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw delivers a compelling performance in the title role of Dido Elizabeth Belle, born out of wedlock to an African slave mother and later legitimized by her natural father, the British admiral Sir John Lindsay. After her mother’s death the young Dido is sent to be fostered by Lindsay’s uncle, Lord Mansfield, and his wife (Emily Watson), as a companion to another great-niece living with them, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Misan Sagay and Amma Assante’s screenplay has the two girls grow closer than sisters, drawing on the spirit of an extant 1779 painting of them together. Very unusually, as the movie reminds us in shot after shot of other portraits from that era that show black retainers gazing up humbly and adoringly at their white masters, they are depicted frolicking together on equal footing.

But as any heroine of a Jane Austen novel could tell you, being treated like siblings in a household does not guarantee comparable likelihood of success in the minefields of contracting an advantageous marriage and subsequent income. To make the social conundrums a bit more interestingly convoluted here, the screenwriters concoct a topsy-turvy relationship: While Dido is forbidden by social protocol to dine with the family when they have guests, on account of her dark skin and the dicey circumstances of birth (historically true), she is financially secure due to a substantial income bestowed by her late father (historically inaccurate, but let’s run with it), while cousin Elizabeth has been entirely cut out of her father’s will due to the connivances of his second wife. So Lady Elizabeth has only an aristocratic name to offer a socially suitable husband, while Dido could buy herself a match – but the only obvious applicants are penniless ones who are willing to overlook her “mulatto” status in favor of her dowry.

So a large part of the plot of this movie revolves around the usual period-drama matchmaking machinations, with a racial twist that allows for some wry humor as snobbish aristocrats try to plaster over their blatant prejudices with phony smiles and courteous mannerisms. Miranda Richardson sneers magisterially as Lady Ashford, the least apologetic of the bigots, and Tom Felton reprises his Mudblood-hating Draco Malfoy routine from the Harry Potter movies as her elder son James, who courts Lady Elizabeth only to drop her like a hot potato the instant the truth of her financial condition is revealed. James Norton plays his younger brother Oliver Ashford, a well-meaning twit whose marriage proposal to Dido includes his willingness to overlook her unfortunate maternal bloodline. Bad move, dude.

Whilst all this mannerly meat-marketing is going on, the sharply intelligent, highly articulate and talented Dido is increasingly drawn to a man well below her social station: the son of a lowly vicar who aspires to change the world through a career in law, and who is gradually opening her sheltered eyes to the plight of black people under English rule. It helps that Sam Reid as John Davinier is implausibly handsome and almost absurdly passionate about matters like abolition, but Lord Mansfield – who, though he dotes on his adopted great-niece, is a stickler for the certainties of strict rules and proper form – will have none of it. He takes on Davinier briefly as a legal assistant until they have a row over the Gregson v. Gilbert case, and the unsuitable young suitor is banished from the household.

Gregson v. Gilbert was an appeal of a decision in favor of an English shipping firm whose employees had infamously tossed 142 enslaved Africans overboard during the Middle Passage, allegedly because they were running out of water and could only save about half the Zong’s human “cargo.” The company that had insured said “cargo” refused to pay, alleging that the crew was at fault for failing to stop at islands along the way to replenish their water stores.

Historically, Lord Mansfield was inclined to decide the case of the Zong Massacre solely on the basis of the principle of “general average” – meaning that shippers could legally destroy part of their cargo in order to save the rest and still claim insurance reimbursement – until new evidence was introduced indicating that ample rainfall had refilled the ship’s water supplies. But in a 1772 ruling known as Somersett’s Case, he had delivered a landmark decision baldly stating that the institution of slavery had no basis in English law, and the screenplay delivers a convenient mashup of the two cases for drama’s sake.

Wilkinson is wonderful in his portrayal of a man struggling to align his well-bred devotion to doing the proper thing with his deeper instinct to do the right thing. In fact, most of the top-shelf cast delivers with requisite British professionalism throughout. Emily Watson’s moment to shine as Lady Mansfield ever-so-gently chides her recalcitrant husband comes quite late in the film, but is particularly well-worth the wait. And Mbatha-Raw is a real find.

Belle is superbly written, with a keen ear for the excruciatingly correct dialogue required amongst the English upper crust, even if the turns of plot are a tad bit predictable. It’s beautifully shot, exquisitely lit and decorated with all the attention to detail of costumes, props and décor that an Austen geek might wish. It even has a romance sweet enough to quicken the pulses of fans of that genre, without sacrificing its biting social points in favor of happy domesticity. Women of her time, Dido notes in observing her foster-sister’s predicament, are slaves to men, no matter what color their mothers were.

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