Every so often a film comes along that marks a moment both in history and in filmmaking. "Belle" is one of these rare gems.
Here we come into the remarkable true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the illegitimate daughter of a 18th century British Royal Navy admiral and his late West Indian inamorata. Given his long tours of duty at sea and inability to care for a young child, Captain Sir John Lindsay prevailed up on his aunt and uncle to take her in and raise her according to all that the family’s social station afforded her.
Thus came into the British aristocracy a child of color who grew into a free young gentlewoman in the household of the man who would determine the legitimacy of the slave trade in Britain. Because as fate or God would have it, said uncle was also known as the Earl of Mansfield, and the British equivalent of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
From technical execution under the hand of director Amma Asante to the glimpse of history behind the walls of the family’s mansion and the difference between its breakfasts and its dinners, "Belle" is an exquisite film in every way.
Writer Misan Sagay expertly conveys Belle’s individual experience and the public policy of her world as both stand-alone narratives and as a third unified whole; both tracks could stand as narratives in their own rights, and Sagay weaves them so deftly that by journey’s end we sense the trajectory of the Western world. We see how far we have yet to go, yet also have great cause for hope in the reality of this indomitable woman and her family.
It’s true that Sagay does take some poetic license, but keeps the whole of the matter intact. In particular, the figure of Charles Davinier did not serve in the capacity illustrated in the film; the function he’s ascribed in today’s telling, however, effectively communicates the complexities informing Lord Mansfield’s decision-making, and provides some good movie drama while honoring the man’s actual character and relation to Belle’s family. (Sadly, the individual portrayed by Tom Felton was precisely as shown – and Felton’s assembling a top-notch career out of these despicable creatures…).
Production and costume design offer a visual feast, and Rachel Portman delivers another masterwork of a score, passionate and delicate with a backbone of steel. It’s really quite past time that she starts receiving some recognition.
Performance across the board excels (how could it not with Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, and Miranda Richardson in residence?). Matthew Good makes marvelous use of his disappointingly limited screen time (remember those long sea voyages…), and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is luminous as Belle. The remaining cast carry well, and Sam Reid is building quite the powerful body of work having just come off "The Railway Man".
Amid the stellar filmmaking we enjoy a deeply moving human exploration of identity, power, duty vs. love, and pursuing the right in the face of impossibility, because “what is right cannot be impossible.”
A woman with no power comes into extraordinary influence; a man of extraordinary power falls completely under it. A woman, kept at arm’s length and confined to close quarters for the color of her skin, who comes to serve as one of the pivotal influences on the case law of the British Empire. A familial love that should exist unquestioned yet must stand strong in its existence; a pure and obvious love of one’s fellow person… simultaneously a love hard-won and a demonstration of love in action (I’m reminded of Cornel West’s words, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”).
As just a bit of an aside, I’m also reminded of the now-common psychological knowledge that a father is the person who teaches a daughter what to accept from men in her life, and it’s worth mentioning that Belle’s father, physically absent though he was, framed for her her worth and innate right to respectful treatment, without which she likely never would have stood up as she did. One man, one insistent decision that influenced the course of history, made simply because it was the right thing to do.
Belle’s is the kind of quiet example that can change a life, and the kind that can slip past us so easily in this fast, noisy world but for the filmmakers who seek out and memorialize it for us.
Do yourself a favor: if you haven’t seen the painting (and if you don’t know what that means, you haven’t), do NOT Google anything about the movie before you see it.
That’s one moment you definitely don’t want spoiled.
Story: Remarkable true story of a biracial girl born into the 18th century British aristocracy.
Genre: Drama, True Story
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, Sara Gadon, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Miranda Richardson, Tom Felton, James Norton
Directed by: Amma Asante
Running time: 104 minutes
Houston release date: May 16, 2014 at the AMC Studio 30 and Landmark River Oaks theaters | Wide release on May 23rd
Tickets: Check IMDb.com or your local listings
Screened Apr 14th at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX