This is a period costume drama, which retells in a somewhat fictional form the story of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She was the illegitimate daughter of a successful C18th English sea captain and a former black slave, Maria Belle. Her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) puts her, in the care of the Mansfield family at their Kenwood mansion. There she is bought up a lady of the landed gentry, though without the full rights accorded her white cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) is the Lord Chief Justice of the English legal system. And the familial crosses over with the social when he has to decide on an appeal concerning the slave ship Zong – a notorious incident where African slaves were thrown overboard on the pretext of a shortage of water. The film takes us up to the resolution of this seminal legal case and to Dido’s entry into an autonomous adult world.
This is a fairly conventional period film, what gives it distinction is the black heroine at the centre of the story. It has been directed by Amma Asante. Her previous and first feature was A Way of Life (UK 2004), a contemporary drama about working class young people, including a pregnant teenager, in South Wales. This film was notable both for its social realist style and its sympathetic and empathetic depiction of its protagonist world. Asante’s other work has been on television. Belle has a very different feel. The film project stems from the script by Misan Sagay, with whose work I am unfamiliar. It is partly funded by the British Film Institute but also be C20th Fox, and I suspect the latter has influenced the stronger generic feel in the film.
Whilst the film is an excellent production, with fine technical values and acting, I felt there were a number of problems with the way it treated this historical story. Foremost was the question of the Appeal Trial regarding the slaver Zong. The Insurers had refused to pay the claims by the ships owners for the loss of cargo. Taken to court the insurers lost and then appealed. The case was a seminal one in terms of black people, slaves and ex-slaves under British law. It also was extremely important in the developing financial capital of the City whilst the slave trade was the basis of British profitability and the developing industrial base. Alongside these key economic imperatives the case became an important opportunity for the developing antislavery movement. There was a welter of pamphlets and immense public interest.
Even at the time there were those who suggested that having a black ward in his house could affect the decision by Lord Mansfield. This is a point picked up and developed in the film.
Neither Dido’s own history or the records of English law cases in this period appear to be complete and detailed. However, it is clear that the filmmakers have taken some liberties with the historical record for dramatic purpose. This is always a tricky area in which to make judgements, but I do feel that the uses made have actually been very conventionalised.
These points emerged when I consulted Lord Mansfield A Biography of William Murray 1st earl of Mansfield 1705 – 1793 Lord Chief Justice for 32 years by Edmund Heward (Barry Rose 1979). One point concerns evidence regarding the ship Zong and the issue of water. In the film Dido, who is taking a strong interest in the case, surreptitiously finds evidence amongst Lord Mansfield’s papers and passes this to an anti-slavery campaigner, John Davinier (Sam Reid). Heward quotes Mansfield’s ruling agreeing to a new trial on appeal, which specifically mentions this evidence, thus already in the public domain.
Then we arrive at the day of the Appeal Decision. Lord Mansfield appears alone to read his decision to a packed courtroom. Did appears, cloaked but clearly recognisable as a woman and apparently the only one present! But Heward’s account notes that three judges were involved in the appeal case. It was at a hearing for the application by the insurers for a new trial that Mansfield read out his comments. Heward also notes that there is no report of an actual trial, and that the owners ‘appear to have had second thoughts’. He then comments that the publicity and public interest in the case led to later statutes prohibiting the insurance of slaves in this manner.
These are to a degree minor changes for greater dramatic effect. However, they also provide Dido with a role and influence in an important historical milestone in the anti-slavery movement. I do wonder a little at that. The film does offer scenes where Lord Mansfield airs some of the issues and contradictions in the case. But overall the film is privileging the personal over the political.
Other aspects of the film make me wonder at the accuracy of the film’s depiction of Dido’s life at Kenwood House. The film’s most noted point is that it uses a surviving painting of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray held in Scone Palace in Scotland. We see the portrait of these two young and privileged women as it is being painted in the film. To be accurate we see them sit for the painter: at one point together and at another Dido is seated alone. Meanwhile the film points up the representations of Africans in art of the period as we see [with Dido] a series of traditional portraits where a black African is typically at the feet of a white master. However, when at the film’s conclusion we come to see the actual painting, or a reproduction, the two women are not seated side by side. Lady Elizabeth is seated and very much the traditional young woman of C18th portraiture. Dido stands alongside Lady Elizabeth, pointing to her cheek and arraigned in a far more exotic garb. Apparently this is ‘one of the first portraits to show a black person on an equal eye-line with a white aristocrat’. However, they do not seem equal. The first time I saw this painting, unaware of its significance, I assumed the black woman was a servant. The publicity material for the film suggests that Dido ‘appears vivacious and intriguing next to her cousin’s formal pose’. That seems to me to still carry the sense of the exotic and the other. The film does show the way that Dido suffers discrimination in a family that apparently cares and supports her because of her skin colour [‘a mulatto’] and her illegitimacy. I did feel that the film never quite decided to what extent Dido was ‘integrated’ in that society. Perhaps the film’s producers were over-awed by the subject matter, or maybe the screenplay overemphasised the decorous aspect of C18th elite society. The nastier aspects of this society are all dramatised in one family, the Ashfords. Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) is obsessed with finding rich marital prospects for her sons: Oliver (James Norton) who proposes to Dido because she has a fortune: and James (Tom Felton) who is both racist and misogynistic. This treatment is just as dramatically conventional
Another oddity of the release in the UK was the BBFC notes on the Certification. First it warned of a ‘brief sexual assault’ which is technically accurate but over emphasises the incident in question. Then it noted ‘a discrimination theme’! As far as I can remember I don’t think that 12 Years a Slave carried such a clause. What was its purpose?
My mind goes back to Philadelphia (USA 1993) an early Hollywood foray into gay relationships. Extremely dramatic and well done but never achieving a full-blooded grasp of the subject. Belle is well worth seeing and is a fascinating exploration of an often-overlooked area. I think it would have generated more power if it did not feel so much part of the heritage film cycle. This is especially strong for the resolution, where the orchestral score [by Rachel Portman] rises and increases on the soundtrack. And that, of course, was also the problem with an earlier film set in the same period and addressing the same subject, Amazing Grace (2006).