Sunday 28 February 2021

Movie Review: Belle (2013)

A costume drama and romance, Belle courageously addresses discrimination issues through the lens of a unique young woman seeking her place in a disciplined social structure.

In England of the late 1700s, Navy Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) entrusts his half-Black daughter Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to the care of his uncle William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), Earl of Mansfield and the country's Lord Chief Justice, and his wife (Emily Watson). Belle's Black mother died young, and Sir John soon dies at sea, leaving Belle with a good inheritance.

She grows up surrounded by luxury but segregated by her colour, forbidden from joining formal dinners but otherwise enjoying life at the lavish Murray estate. Belle forms a strong bond of sisterhood with the Earl's other grand niece Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon).

Belle is intrigued by the Zong slave ship legal case involving the intentional killing of slaves by drowning. The resultant cargo insurance dispute is being adjudicated by her great uncle, with the country awaiting his decision. Belle also attracts the romantic attention of the passionate John Davinier (Sam Reid), the son of a vicar and an aspiring lawyer interested in a more just society. But another suitor complicates Belle's life, as she challenges a multitude of societal rules.

Based on a true story but with plenty of artistic licence to fill in facts lost to history, Belle is intelligent, engrossing and uplifting. Inspired by the actual 1779 painting of Belle and her cousin Elizabeth by artist David Martin, director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay create a multi-dimensional tableau of upper-echelon society in the Georgian era, where every action is strictly defined by classism and protocol. 

In this world Belle is an intriguing misfit, a half-Black independently wealthy product of an illegitimate union, and a blood descendant of one of the country's most powerful men. The context of intersecting currents colliding to shake loose kernels of societal awakening provides rich grounds for a rewarding narrative, and Asante quickly gets to work, teasing out threads of understated conflict. 

Within the Earl of Mansfield's house Belle faces contradictions, afforded a privileged upbringing but banished from the dinner table. As young women ready to be introduced to London's society in search of suitors, Belle and Elizabeth (penniless after being abandoned by her father) face different challenges and prejudices ranging from snootiness to racism. John Davinier is the disruptive presence, looked down upon as merely a vicar's son, but nevertheless intent on leaving his mark both on Belle's heart and his country.

Far from content with traditional costume drama conflicts and affairs of the heart, the film strides into the history of slavery in Great Britain, and Sagay's script demonstrates a deft touch to introduce the Zong incident, featuring mass murder, slaves-as-cargo, on-board disease, allegations of a water shortage, and an insurance dispute, in remarkably comprehensible morsels. The Earl of Mansfield is the rock around which all the waters churn, and Tom Wilkinson expertly hints at sparks of humanity shining through the gruff exterior of the Lord Chief Justice, tied to laws but with the power to change them.

The third act brings Belle's personal story to the crossroads of her nation's history. Even in a most regimented society, willing provocateurs ensure change is a constant.

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