“Belle” is a beautifully filmed and exquisitely acted film that weaves a tapestry of convenient history around the presence of the mixed race grandniece of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, chief justice of the King’s Bench. “Belle,” directed by Amma Asante and written by Misan Sagay, is lovely to look at but made of whole cloth, as almost everything within this story — from the character of the protagonists to the events that transpired — is false, presented entirely for dramatic effect.
Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of a West Indian slave and navy captain Sir John Lindsay. It was Lindsay who implored his uncle, Lord Mansfield, to take her into his household and raise her as a member of his family. Mansfield agreed, especially as he and his wife Lady Murray were also raising another grandniece, Elizabeth, close in age to Dido. In Sagay’s account, both girls grow up in loving circumstances and are as close as sisters. As they approach the age of their debuts into society, they both eagerly anticipate suitors, although it will actually be more complicated for Elizabeth, who has no dowry, than for Dido who was left a generous income by her father.
Elizabeth, flighty and romantic, has her cap set for Oliver Ashford, the heir to an impressive estate. His brother James has eyes for Dido. But it is the fiery and penniless law student, John Davinier who complicates matters for the daughter of a slave. He is a dedicated abolitionist crusading for social justice and he raises many questions in both her heart and mind, for it is at this moment in time that Lord Mansfield will be presiding over a trial that may rock the foundations of the slave trade in England. This is the infamous Zongo case brought by a syndicate of merchants against the insurance company that refused to pay for cargo lost at sea. The cargo lost at sea? More than 200 slaves thrown overboard to preserve the water necessary to complete the trip. At stake? The very definition of cargo.
As the court case draws nigh, Dido and Davinier meet secretly, drawn by intellect and passion. She becomes even more self-aware of her status and the perception of others leading her to break off with the shallow James Ashford. Lord Mansfield, furious at the intervention of Davinier in both the legal case at hand and with his grandniece, banishes him from his presence. But justice will prevail, though the heavens may fall, and Mansfield finds against the merchant syndicate.
The production values of this film could not be higher if the Merchant Ivory team had constructed them personally. The cinematography of Ben Smithard, the production design of Simon Bowles and the costumes of Anushia Nieradzik so perfectly capture the late 18th Century era in which the story takes place that the viewer feels perfectly situated in the middle of the garden party scenes. Tom Wilkinson, Lord Mansfield, is an actor who may never be first billed but is always the reason to see a film, regardless of genre. His job here is doubly difficult because the writer has left him with little to do but look concerned or stern. And yet he is still able to convey the conflicts that were endemic in his situation.
Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield is his perfect match, softening with every scene, conveying the understanding that the complicated family arrangement will necessarily bring some sorrow. Sarah Gadon is delightful as the light-headed light-hearted Elizabeth, a beautiful creature who sees no further than the pocketbooks of untenable suitors. Sam Reid as the stalwart John Davinier is sincere, righteous, starry-eyed and handsome, let’s not forget handsome. He is delicious enough to make many a bosom heave and heart palpitate. Penelope Wilton, a wonderful actress who now seems relegated to portraying women past a certain age with hardness and rigidity, as exemplified in “Downton Abby” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” portrays the maiden aunt and caretaker Lady Mary Murray. Never to go unnoticed, Miranda Richardson has her scene-stealing moments as the hateful and duplicitous Lady Ashford, mother of James and Oliver. With a hardened mouth and sparkling eyes, she’s no one you would want to meet in a dark corridor.
It is, however, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido who steals the show. She is luminous, sincere, gorgeous and totally convincing as a young woman trying hard to find a place in the world when there is not even a place for her at the table with company. If there is a reason to see this film, it is largely due to her performance. One truly wants to believe that she could have been the center of such attention and such influence as the filmmakers would have you believe. It is hoped that she will have many important roles to come.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, all the while realizing that in almost every instance the director chose melodrama over subtlety. As a romance, “Belle” is a pleasant diversion. As an effort at popular history it is an abject failure and enough of one to call into question one’s overall pleasure with the film. Dido continued to live in the Mansfield household until she was past the age of 30. She never received an inheritance from her father although she received a small annuity from Lord Mansfield upon his death. Following his death, she did marry Davinier, a white man, but little if anything is known about him or their life together.
The filmmakers would have you believe that Lord Mansfield’s ruling in the Zongo case was influenced by his love for Dido and put the nails in the coffin of slavery. This was not the case. Mansfield ruled that a fraud had been perpetrated by the merchants as it could be proven that there was little or no justification for the murder of the slaves in order to preserve the lives of those left on board. More significantly were the two cases over which Mansfield presided some 10 years previously, the most famous being that of escaped slave James Somerset, whose former owner attempted to sell and ship him back to the West Indies. It was Mansfield’s ruling in favor of Somerset and his declaration in which he made clear his abhorrence of slavery and his feeling of its illegality in England that many took as evidence that slavery was therefore abolished in England. In counterbalance, and this has particular significance with regards to the Zongo case, he still maintained that slavery was an issue of commerce and property rights outside of England.
The filmmakers further embellish the events by inventing an incriminating witness in the Zongo case along with a stolen log book showing the stops made by the ship and the miscalculation that resulted in the lack of provisions. Reality was far less romantic as there were no credible eye witnesses or whistle blowers because it was in the crew’s best interest to lie or remain silent. The log book never turned up and it was mathematical calculations that determined the captain’s errors and the report that a rain storm hit the ship during the killings that invalidated the merchants’ claims of hardship and necessity.
How much better I would feel about this film if it had been presented as a work of fiction with roman à clef elements rather than “inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle.” Dido was, indeed, the grandniece of Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Lord Mansfield was the most important judge of the land and, whether he intended it or not, he had ended slavery in England. That she was lovely, as judged by the painting Johan Zoffany, cannot be denied. Everything else, alas, can be.
Still, as an evening’s entertainment and florid romance, “Belle” is enjoyable as a period piece of romantic fiction and a case of “what if.” Gugu Mbatha-Raw carries the film nicely and Miranda Richardson makes this melodrama fun just with an eye-roll.