Directed by Amma Asante
Written by Misan Sagay
Featuring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Sarah Gadon, Sam Reid
Belle is the illegitimate daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay and freed slave woman from a captured Spanish slaver-ship. Sir John brings her back to England and leaves her in the charge of his great-aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Mansfield. Belle is brought up with love and all the conventions of wealthy and influential 18th century England. As she gets older Belle knows that despite the love and respect showed to her by her family that in wider society she will be restricted and judged entirely on her skin colour. Lord Mansfield is the highest judge in the land, the Lord Chief Justice will his personal and family life influence his involvement in the case of the century, insurance fraud and slavery, and how will all of this affect Belle and her future?
A difficult film to make, due to the setting of 18th century England and the subject matter of slavery and equality, all the while we view this through 21st century eyes [well most of us are anyway] and values. But to be true to the people depicted you have to show the attitudes of the time otherwise the film because anachronistic, flawed and deeply irritating, well it does for me. I’m pleased to say this film did not.
All of the cast had to act and show deep emotions without resorting to shouting and waving their arms about and each of one them stood up the test admirably.
Tom Wilkson and Emily Watson give a masterclass in acting for a 21st century audience and being believable 18th century aristocrats. Fantastic.
The gorgeous Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sarah Gadan are believable as loving sisters thrown into the world of looking for eligible spouses and display the barely suppressed angry and confusion at the world they forced to live in with some panache, Gugu Mbatha-Raw especially so.
I was transported into this world from the get-go and the film flew by. There were a few ‘hmmm’ moments but I would imagine when making a film of this type some liberties have to be taken otherwise you will lose the modern audience.
Films based on historic fact are always a thorn in some people’s sides but a basic look at the real Dido Belle shows that the gist of the truth is there and film-maker Amma Asante has dramatized just enough to keep the non-historian happy without driving the pendant mad.
Sounds easy but I believe it is a very difficult task. Clearly Belle’s position in the house has been elevated (in actual fact she looked after the poultry and dairy) and the only money that was ever left to her was from her protector Lord Mansfield, her real father left her nothing. Also her real life beau, John Davinier, was French and a gentlemen’s steward but this further elevation is needed for dramatic effect and is easy to forgive.
Clearly Miranda Richardson and Tom Felton are there to give the audience an embodiment of the attitudes of the time to hate (a trick Ron Howard resorts to at ever opportunity) but somehow they are not as over-the-top as they first appear to be. Although by now Tom Felton must be asking his agent to get him a role as nice gentle character in some romantic comedy.
Some things come together all at once, align and everything works our brilliantly, Belle, is such a project. Top actors at the top of their game and interesting storyline that says something about us as much today as it did then and not too mangling of the facts and no overwrought histrionics.
The speech by Lord Mansfield at the end of the film are the actual word he said in regard to slavery, although it was not to do with the Zong insurance fraud claim but an earlier case regarding the returning of an escaped slave and his former owners appeal for him to be returned to slavery in the West Indies.
Nothing to with Amma Asante or the writer Misan Sagay so difficult for the angry and righteous brigade of Twitter to get worked up about non-existent political correctness.
Great to see Gugu Mbatha-Raw in something better than Odd Thomas.
This is good, very good, a project everyone involved with should be very proud of.