Historical biopic is too polite to get worked up over slavery
Directed by Amma Asante
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson
Historical dramas about slavery based entirely in England are rare creatures. There’s Michael Apted’s 2006 film Amazing Grace and ... well, you can now add Belle to the list. It’s not all that hard to figure out why the subcategory is so slim. England was pretty far removed from the day-to-day effects of the slave trade. Businesswise, the English Crown supported the industry in order to fuel cotton and sugar plantations in the American colonies. But Great Britain itself was more of a remote spectator, perfectly happy to continue propping up its feudal, class-based system of landed gentry and common laborers. Setting a slavery drama outside the American South is a bit like setting a Revolutionary War picture in London. It’s possible, but where’s the action?
Belle, the incredibly well-meaning costume drama from director Amma Asante (A Way of Life) and writer Misan Sagay (Their Eyes Were Watching God), believes it’s found the perfect lynchpin upon which to hang such a drama. Real-life, mid-18th-century figure Dido Elizabeth Belle is best known thanks to a vivid portrait of her and her cousin Elizabeth Murray painted by Johann Zoffany. Given the time period, the lovely romantic painting of two aristocratic young ladies—one black, one white—is surprising. Turns out the life of Dido Belle was no less fascinating.
When we first meet Dido, round about 1760, she is a young “mulatto” girl, left an orphan by the death of her mother, an African slave. The girl’s father, however, is one Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode, Watchmen). He shows up out of the blue and takes Dido to the household of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice and uncle to Sir Lindsay. Despite his apparent love for the child, Lindsay ditches her, runs off to continue his career in the Navy and is never heard from again. (The film conveniently forgets to mention Lindsay’s other illegitimate children.)
Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson from The Full Monty and Emily Watson from Breaking the Waves) are somewhat scandalized to find themselves in charge of a mixed-race child. But, as a noted barrister and judge, Lord Mansfield is nothing if not a stickler for rules. And the rules say Dido’s paternal parentage qualifies her as a member of the aristocracy. Dido is raised on the lovely grounds of the Mansfield estate and eventually grows into a beautiful, educated young woman (played by up-and-comer Gugu Mbatha-Raw)—at which point she’s subject to that most Austen-esque of conundrums: Whomever shall she marry?
The sticking point, of course, is Dido’s African blood. Dido has all the advantages of England’s upper crust—but she’s always acutely aware of the fact that she is different. In order to get married “properly,” early Victorian women had to be titled and/or rich. Thanks to her father’s military pension, Dido’s perfectly well-off. But her skin betrays her race, making her a difficult prospect to unload. On the other hand, we have Dido’s cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, a prolific TV actress like Mbatha-Raw), who has a clear title but is “poor” thanks to her father’s remarriage. There are prospects for both ladies in the form of brothers Oliver and James Ashford (James Norton from Rush and Tom Felton from the Harry Potter series). There’s also studly young rabble rouser John Davinier (Sam Reid, The Railway Man), the politically minded son of the local vicar—but he’s working class and therefore unworthy of aristocratic young ladies. ... Or is he?
For the most part, Belle seems content to be your standard Austen-esque romance, but it also yearns to be a socially conscious drama. Eventually the film gets around to dealing with Dido’s race in a larger, non-marriage-related context. In a rather interesting historical twist, Lord Mansfield was called upon to rule on cases affecting the legitimacy of the slave trade. Belle concentrates on the story of the Zong, a British ship transporting kidnapped African slaves to the New World. At some point the crew threw their diseased cargo overboard and applied for recompense from their insurance company. The company refused to pay, and the Lord Chief Justice was prevailed upon to decide whether human beings counted as merchandise or not. It was a terribly important decision, and one that paved the way for the abolition of slavery in England (many years before such a law was passed in America, it must be noted). It’s not hard to imagine that Lord Mansfield’s mixed-race charge Dido had some influence on this groundbreaking decision. Belle does its best to dramatize this with lots of rousing speeches and soul-searching expressions—most of which take place in a stuffy courtroom.
England’s effect on the slave trade, however, was more or less academic. England certainly took the high moral ground on the issue—but the country’s legislative moves had little effect on a part of the world that was on the verge of declaring its independence anyway. Belle is a must for fans of jurisprudence, but it lacks the heart-wrenching visceral impact of a film like 12 Years a Slave. Belle is just too tidy, proper and “Masterpiece Theatre”-like to really hit home when it comes to a topic like slavery. The actors are all fine in their roles, but the casting is a bit too on-the-nose. Wilkinson stands in for befuddled, but well-meaning authority. Felton is called upon to represent snotty little weasels everywhere. Penelope Wilton from “Downton Abbey” is cast as the dotty spinster. Miranda Richardson (“Blackadder,” Merlin, The Young Victoria) contributes her usual air of toffee-nosed aristocracy. There’s a good deal of shorthand going on here. The film looks and sounds great—with its beautiful gowns, its well-manicured lawns and its erudite dialogue—but it lacks the urgency and passion one would expect from its tough topic of choice.