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New Release Review - Belle

The 18th century story of  mixed race British heiress Dido Elizabeth Belle.

Directed by: Amma Asante
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid




It's not unusual for 18th century British paintings to feature black subjects; the period was the height of the slave trade. What is striking is for a black subject to share the same eyeline and prominence in the frame as a white counterpart. That's the case with a portrait from 1779, painted by an unknown artist, of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed race illegitimate daughter of Royal Navy Admiral John Lindsay and African slave Maria Belle. Amma Asante's film delves into the life of Dido (Mbatha-Raw) and the influence the young woman had on her uncle, William Murray (Wilkinson), Lord Chief Justice of England and an instrumental figure in Britain's abolition of slavery.
Murray and his wife, Lady Mansfield (Watson), raise Dido alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Gadon), after her father perishes at sea. Dido finds herself caught between two worlds; as an heiress, she occupies a higher social standing than her white adoptive family, while as a mulatto, she is forbidden to join them at the dinner table.
Dido reluctantly accepts her situation until the arrival of young lawyer John Davinier (Reid) forces her to question her status. Reid is embroiled in a legal case involving the deaths of slaves onboard a ship, the crux of which revolves around the issue of whether slaves can be considered "cargo" and thus be covered by insurance. The case puts Murray in a difficult position; though he's sympathetic with the plight of slaves, passing a ruling in favour of Reid's argument would begin the process of abolition, making Murray the enemy of Britain's most powerful businessmen.
In recent years, British cinema has led the way in giving opportunities to black and female film-makers. One of the best results of this is that we're now getting movies dealing with the issue of race that aren't burdened by the self-flagellation of white liberal guilt. Prior to 12 Years a Slave, films focusing on race employed a reductive 'white people bad, black people good', dynamic. The impression white film-makers left was one of apology, without being altogether sure what exactly it was they're apoligising for. It's an approach that generally provokes a response of "I'm glad us white people aren't as evil as that anymore", which completely misses the point and does no good at all. Racism is rarely a matter of evil, more often a product of ignorance.
Written and directed by a duo of black women, it would have been easy for Belle to adopt an "All men are scum, especially when they're white" approach, but thankfully director Assante and writer Misan Sagay are interested in a more nuanced exploration of the issue.
As with 12 Years, Belle is a film whose characters are all victims of their era. Nobody seems quite sure why they should treat Dido differently, and when the young woman asks for answers regarding her status, she never receives any clear answers. Murray, fantastically played by Wilkinson, is a character both tragic and ultimately heroic. The modern viewer might sneer that there's nothing heroic about simply doing the right thing, but when the right thing is frowned upon by most of your countrymen, it takes great courage. Unlike Speilberg's Abraham Lincoln, who felt like he had time travelled back from the contemporary world, Assante's Murray is much more a man of, and bound by, his time.
The abolition of slavery in the US has been well documented,  but the end of the wretched affair in Britain, a full century before the US civil war, is less well known. It was essentially a series of insurance contests, like the one portrayed here. At its heart, Belle is a fascinating period legal drama, with a cast of quality British thesps, though a lack of visual storytelling makes it more suited to a small screen viewing. 
7/10


Eric Hillis

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