on 15 September 2014
I stumbled upon "Belle" entirely by accident. It was a "sponsored" item on Facebook and caught my eye because of the "period setting" of the Bluray cover. I am a big fan of Jane Austen and British period drama so I was immediately drawn to it. After checking the trailer on Youtube and reading the reviews on Amazon and IMDB, I purchased the bluray sight unseen. I am very happy that I did.
The story is inspired by the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Elizabeth Murray. The portrait is currently housed in the Earl of Mansfield's seat in Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland, and was formerly attributed to artist Johann Zofanny. It begins with Captain Sir John Lindsay becoming acquainted with his daughter Dido, his illegitimate child with a former African slave Belle who has died. Capt. Lindsay takes Dido and places her in the care of his uncle, the Lord Chief Justice and Earl of Mansfield, and his wife Elizabeth. Lord and Lady Mansfield have no children and already have their young niece Elizabeth in their care. Elizabeth is the daughter of their nephew and heir David Murray, although she was left to their care by her father after he remarried.
Dido and Elizabeth are raised together and become inseparable companions. They are both educated, accomplished and spirited young women (the latter much to the chagrin of their grand-aunt Mary). They are then thrown into the company and attentions of eligible young men, most notably James and Oliver Ashford. Their mother Lady Ashford sanctions the match for James and Elizabeth, assuming that Elizabeth is heiress to the Mansfield estate. In truth it is Dido who is the heiress while Elizabeth is a relative pauper, having been abandoned by her father. Younger brother Oliver forms an attraction to Dido. Another young man, John Davinier, is introduced into the Mansfield household as a protege of Lord Mansfield. John, the vicar's son, is an ambitious, intelligent but impoverished young man who wishes to make law his profession. Lord Mansfield is set to rule over a legal case that is in the forefront of London society at that time - the Zong case (aka Gregson vs Gilbert), which involves the death of slaves on a ship bound from Africa, in which Lord Mansfield is the judge. As Lord Mansfield takes him under his wing, John becomes involved in the case. Dido develops an interest in the case and she and John form a friendship. As Dido and Elizabeth embark on a trip to London for the season, Lord Mansfield prepares for the one of the most controversial cases of his time. Love inevitably follows them there as both young women discover that the path to love and marriage is often full of complications.
While this film includes all the necessary ingredients to make it a topnotch period drama - a brilliant cast, beautiful locations, sumptuous costumes, fine acting and high production values - what makes it stand out to me is how it is told from a very different point-of-view. Instead of one of our fine Jane Austen-esque or Dickensian heroines, we have a young, strong-willed and intelligent bi-racial heroine. Dido faces the same challenges as other young ladies at the time in terms of social mores and customs as well as the inevitable necessity (at that time) of finding a suitable match. But her challenges are exacerbated because of the color of skin, as certain restrictions are placed on her and some in her society deem her "unsuitable" as a wife. Those that do find her suitable raise suspicion as to whether they love her for herself or for her wealth.
The storyline is one of the main reasons why I love this film. It is well told, inspiring and engaging. The other is the wonderful cast. English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the perfect Dido. She is lovely and with such a bright spark that makes her entirely convincing as the intelligent, engaging and strong (yet in a feminine and understated way) heroine. Much like "Pride & Prejudice's" Elizabeth Bennet or "North & South's" Margaret Hale, her Dido is no shrinking violet. Sarah Gadon is charming and often funny as Dido's vivacious and lovestruck cousin Elizabeth (Bette). She is the yin to Dido's yang. The young ladies could not be more different and yet they share a bond and friendship as sisters would. One of my favorites, however, is Sam Reid who plays the idealistic, intelligent, ambitious John Davinier. John is no mere cipher. Sam infuses such passion, personality and charisma in his role that he commands the screen even as he goes up against Tom Wilkinson's formidable Lord Mansfield. Tom Wilkinson is always brilliant in whatever he does, and his Lord Mansfield is convincing as both the imperious Lord Chief Justice and the protective and gentle "Papa" to Dido and Bette. He truly feels that weight of his burden - knowing that he is about to make a decision over a case that could change the face of slavery in England. And even with this burden, he knows that he also has a family life and the well being of his young nieces to consider. Emily Watson plays Lady Mansfield, who balances her motherly responsibilities to her nieces and is the rock and support for her husband. Penelope Wilton plays Lady Mary Murray (sister of Lord Mansfield) who has never married and takes charge of the Mansfield estate. Miranda Richardson is Lady Ashford, James and Oliver's mother, whose main objective is to seek eligible (i.e. wealthy) wives for her two eligible sons. Alex Jennings plays her husband Lord Ashford, colleague of Lord Mansfield. Harry Potter's Tom Felton is James, who initially pursues Elizabeth, as the Ashford's assume that she is an heiress. James detests Dido while his brother Oliver (James Norton) feels otherwise. Matthew Goode has a small role as Dido's father, Captain Sir John Lindsay.
Credit to the strong screenplay, Amma Assante's directing and the talents of these actors that every one of the characters has a personality that jumps off the screen. Even the maid Mabel and the carriage driver Wimbridge are memorable. And may I say that I love the chemistry between the two leads? You have all seen the trailer soit will not be a spoiler when I say that the electricity when Dido and John are onscreen is palpable. Within the first few minutes of the movie, I knew I made the right choice in purchasing this film. It is engaging from beginning to end and I have to admit I watched and re-watched this many times since. I wish this movie was longer because I did not want Dido's story to end. If you enjoy period dramas such as Pride & Prejudice, BBC's North & South and Downton Abbey, then I highly recommend this movie. It has become one of my favorites in my British period drama collection and I hope this encourages others to see this film and take that chance as I have. I am so glad that I did.
Belle is a hard movie not to love. It is a historical romance as well as a film about social justice. Through circumstances, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a "mulatto" whose father was of some means, is raised at the manor of her great uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). Lord Mansfield has raised his grand niece in a proper fashion, but is aware of "the nature of order" and keeps her away from company at former dining. She is raised as a sister with her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), whose father has less means. Belle acquires an inheritance and suitors while Elizabeth's financial status puts her at risk of being able to marry into her rank. Elizabeth points out to Belle, that all women are property.
Belle develops a mutual attraction for John Davinier (Sam Reid) a man beneath her in status, the lowly son of a vicar. He aspires to be an attorney. He is currently at odds with Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of the country. A court case concerning the sailing vessel "Zong" threw its cargo of slaves overboard claiming lack of supplies. The insurance company claims fraud and does not want to pay. The decision rests with Lord Mansfield, a traditionalist.
The film was well done. It will be hard for the Academy to ignore this one, especially in an off year of films. I couldn't help but be drawn to that moment in "Lincoln" when they repealed slavery, the decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education, or even the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. Also a good performance by Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield and Tom Felton returns as a screen bad guy.
Worth adding to the collection.
on 1 July 2014
Forget The Fault in Our Stars - here's a romance for all ages, complete with a strong moral core, a blazing humanism, a muscular feminism, and a tidy history lesson to boot. It's more than simply a little sister to 12 Years a Slave. Both are based on remarkable true stories; but while Steve McQueen's film depicted the Atlantic slave experience on the ground, Amma Asante's puts slavery, and the start of the end of slavery, in the long shot context of British legal history.
In terms of setting this is as far removed as possible from Solomon Northup's Deep Southern hell, set in the stately rooms of a London society home whose servants are free and paid. The patriarch, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), has an adopted daughter, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is of an age where a lady would "come out" and find a suitor. Here the phrase has a double meaning: in "coming out", the Murray family are publicly acknowledging the existence of their exotic novelty. Reputation is everything, and the 1st Earl of Mansfield has everything to lose.
The concurrent storylines concerning the potential marriage of Belle and the trial of the slave ship Zong are well-balanced, carefully avoiding crassness, with the former acting as a mirror against which the outcome of the latter is reflected. At times the film does succumb to the fallacious Hollywood notion that history has been defined by individual "Eureka!" moments. The sight of William overhearing an impassioned John Davinier (Sam Reid) spelling out the concept of equality is fanciful, although I suppose as a shorthand way of depicting changing attitudes it works. Are we to believe that William was ultimately swayed by the force of Davinier's love for Belle? Well, let's believe for 100 minutes, and consider afterwards what it tells us about humankind and its capacity for change.
Of all the cast, Wilkinson has the toughest task. While others' minds are already made up, William's must change before our eyes. We feel the weight of responsibility upon this man. Too often Wilkinson falls into the category of Solid & Reliable, so it's a pleasure to see him really entrenched in a role. The relationship between William and Belle is the film's fulcrum, and it's movingly and convincingly portrayed. Mbatha-Raw matches Wilkinson, capturing the shyness and ambivalence of a girl too high in station to be disregarded but too low in race to be properly included. Her plight is further complicated by her inheritance: in all but biology she would be amongst the most eligible of all the ladies of Europe. The absurdity of her situation is agonising, and it's testament to the script and performances that we despair at that absurdity and feel that agony.
Sadly, not all the performances are up to the same standard. Sarah Gadon, as Belle's BFF and surrogate sister Elizabeth Murray, is sometimes wooden, while Tom Felton undermines his own menace by playing James Ashford as a flame-eyed monster rather than the vicious, bigoted schemer from which the story might benefit. He represents the bigotry of the culture of the time, but the impotence in his outrage means we don't get a sense of what the abolitionists were really up against.
Sometimes stagey, often obvious, and by its nature predictable, but also heartrending, intelligent, and bold, Belle is high-quality issue cinema with an inspiring conscience. The faults in its stars are greatly outnumbered by its qualities.
on 5 March 2015
Prior to my viewing the trailer to this movie, I knew nothing about the historical person this movie is based on-- Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (1761-1804). Which is quite something, being I'm an avid fan of period dramas- especially of the Georgian/Regency era *1714 to 1830*, and despite the fact that I view countless BBC historical documentaries! So you can imagine that I've been anticipating this film a great deal for about the past 3-4 months...
The vast majority of the actors I've seen prior to this, except stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw/"Dido", Sarah Gadon/"Elizabeth", and Sam Reid/"John Davinier". Needless to say, their portrayals didn't disappoint, and I look forward to seeing them again in future productions (esp. if it's a period drama)!
Overall, I really enjoyed pretty much everything about this production. However, it should be noted that this is not a 100% accurate in its depiction of events & facts. For instance....
- The film states Dido received £2,000 annually after her father died. In actuality, he had 3 illegitimate children in total. The son and other daughter received £1,000 each as an inheritance, but Dido did not (nor did she receive any assistance from her stepmother as indicated she should in his will). Her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, gave her an annual allowance of £30 & 10s, and upon his death she received £500 outright, a £100 annuity, and her continued freedom. She also inherited £100 from Lady Margery Murray.
- Her cousin Elizabeth Murray was not as destitute as depicted (in fact, she may have been an heiress to her mothers fortune). She received about £100 annually from her uncle, and inherited £10,000 upon his death. She was married by the age of 20, long before Dido.
- John Davinier was never an up and coming law clerk/assistant. He was just a gentleman's steward (personal assistant, who managed the domestic staff, etc.)
Also, at the end of the movie it says they had 2 children, when they actually had 3 sons (first twins, and then another son 2 years before she died).
- The brother suitors in the movie were never mentioned in what I've read. Dido was never prior engaged.
- Lord Mansfield's best known judgement was Somersett's Case (Somerset v Stewart), in 1772.
Aside from this production, there's really no other film or documentary on this interesting historical character! (Hopefully the BBC will release something on her in the future.) But there is a brief dramatization about the Zong Massacre trial on Season/Series 2, episode 1 of the BBC's "Garrow's Law".
In conclusion, I recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys productions of this genre, especially those with a historical basis.
It also has a PG rating, which is getting harder to find these days!
Is there a connection between Jane Austen's novel "Mansfield Park", and the Mansfield family? Read on to find out: jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol31no1/jones.html
Dido's biography: janeausten.co.uk/dido-elizabeth-belle/
The history, and the movie: dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-2618656/Portrait-mystery-lady-The-incredible-story-18th-century-painting-inspired-new-movie.html
Set design, locations, interior decorations: littlemissarchitect.com/2014/08/dido-belles-movie-set-design-and.html
If you want to know more about this time period the BBC has many fantastic documentaries to choose from, namely: "At Home With the Georgians" (3 pt), and "The First Georgians" (3 pt). If you want to know more about the "Regency" era (covered in Jane Austen's books), check these out: "Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency" (BBC, 3 pt.), "Pride And Prejudice: Having A Ball" (BBC), and "Regency House Party" (BBC, 8 ep's)-- to name a few!
Also, a similar movie based on real events that lead up to the abolition of slavery is "Amazing Grace" (2007)
on 23 June 2014
A beautiful film, set in Georgian England during and after the year 1769.
It possesses a moral and intellectual message about the delicate social and marital position of Dido, an upper class young woman of mixed race and considerable inherited wealth.
A parallel storyline relates to the marriage prospects of Dido's equally enticing stepsister, Elizabeth, who is white but does not enjoy the added monetary allure for potential suitors of her own personal wealth.
Elizabeth's expectations of a 'good' marriage, while notably less precarious than those of Dido, nonetheless hang by a thread.
All the while there is a pending court judgment in which an appeal in the case of the slave ship 'Zong' is to be decided by Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice. The decision in 1783 is seen as a landmark case which seriously undermined the credibility of the slave trade in the UK.
This all followed a major judgment by Lord Mansfield in 1772 in the James Somerset case when he ordered the release of a black slave held in England - to the considerable dismay of the powerful slave lobby. The film seems to combine the two cases within the 'Zong' judgment
Lord Mansfield is kin and carer for the two young women.
This is a wonderful, classy 'historical' movie. Its theme is both enthralling and uplifting.
I've read some valid criticisms of Amma Asante's "Belle"; you know how it will end by 20 minutes in, at times it can feel stuffy and Masterpiece Theater-ish, it isn't as edgy as its subject really needs, it talks about the horrific obscenity of slavery, but never makes us face it as more than a concept, it plays a bit fast and loose with history to make its points, its villains are little more than cartoons. Fine, I think all those have some truth.
But… in the end I found the film very moving, thought-provoking and uplifting in a way that felt earned. The film is the fact based story of a mixed race girl being brought up in upper- class England in the mid 18th century by a judge who would eventually make some key legal decisions about slavery.
There is more than a touch of Jane Asustin-esque social comedy in the drama, which observes that women of the time were also no more than property, if wildly better treated than slaves.
The acting writing and direction combine to create some memorable and complex characters. Their complexity becomes all the more apparent on 2nd viewing, when we can catch the flaws in those who are 'good', and the maddening strangeness of being a person alone in their own world in a way few people can imagine.
If the film takes a naive and then intellectual attitude towards slavery, it does so because that is also the experience of the heroine. On some level an outcast in her upper-class world, she begins as an innocent to the horrors around her. As she learns about them they inform who she is and who she becomes in ways that are moving and powerful.
The film may be imperfect, but it does a great job of combining a lush romanticism, with emotional weight, wit and righteous ideas.
on 17 December 2014
As per my review title, I actually found out about the movie Belle due to a movie poster of this film catching my attention inside the Regal Gallery Place Stadium 14 movie theater (Washington D.C. location). However, around the time the movie was released, I had a difficult decision to make between seeing this or another movie in the movie theaters. I confess that I went with the other movie,, but went with renting this dvd when I saw it featured a redbox location near the University of Maryland College Park campus. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in the prominent role as Belle, and is shown in the beginning of the movie only briefly spending time with her biological father due to the nature of his job (he is a British Royal Navy Officer). He is able to find family members to take her in but the transition is not easy for any of them due to the times that they were living in even with being upper class (the movie is set in 1700’s England). Her father’s uncle William Murray and his wife Elizabeth raise her up in the household (played by Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson). On the positive side, Dido’s character enjoys a close relationship with a cousin close in age who is pretty much like a sister to her (Lady Elizabeth Murray played by Sarah Gadon). Dido’s guardians are concerned that her mixed race will prevent her from receiving marriage proposals. However, Dido does get the romantic attention of two men: from Oliver Ashford (played by James Norton) and John Davinier (Sam Reid). She obviously has to make a choice and it becomes clear to the viewing audience which man truly loves her regardless of how much she is worth. Meanwhile, Dido’s guardians are contending with the delicate balance of handling the stress of the trial involving slaves who met a watery grave without causing too much stress in their marriage.
on 13 September 2014
"Belle" - A beautifully written & performed script totally in keeping with the beauty & integrity of the characters revealed. This is a life we all need to celebrate ! How prescient was Belle's father in placing her with his very conservative family ! I am buying a copy for each of our children's families. Guglielmo J.
on 29 March 2015
I had been wary of this film as being a too revisionist version of events but it was pleasant surprise to find a subtle analysis of the dilemma of love versus money as the wellsprings of marriage for the aristocracy intermixed with a legal case that set a strong precedent. The acting was very strong and disbelief was suspended even if there was bit too much of getting in and out of carriages in lovely dresses.
It is too simplistic to see history as a linear improvement of all social mores. There was probably less colour prejudice in the 18th Century than in the 19th or 20th when technological superiority was conflated with race. Real changes need the law to fix them in place and the proudest boast of Britain that it was an early and vigorous abolitionist country. One of the prime causes of the American revolution was the desire of the colonists to keep slavery.
If you are familiar with North London, you may be familiar with Kenwood House, and if you are, you may be interested in seeing this movie which is about the story of the people who lived there in the late 1700s.
Based on the true story, the movie is about the daughter of an English nobleman and a slave; and what her life was like, being the only mixed race woman in 1700s British aristocratic circles. The story is a little dry and political in parts, and you have to be in the mood for the period drama old-school way of talking, but I enjoyed the more human parts of the story, the love story, and the satisfying ending. Above all it was great to be reminded that even in the most unenlightened times in history, there still existed people who could look past society's prejudices and had the courage to stand for what is right.