Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above, or read it below.
Race, bigotry, class, slavery, miscegenation, women as property …. these are a handful of the issues that the film Belle grapples with while disguised as what some are calling ‘a costume drama’.
The film opens in 1769 as John Lindsay, an officer in the British Royal Navy, arrives at an unnamed site to claim his daughter. Her mother, a former West Indian slave, and Lindsay’s lover, has recently died.
Lindsay’s intention is to convince his uncle, Lord Mansfield, who also happens to be the Chief Justice of Britain’s highest court, to care for his daughter while he, Lindsay, is away at sea.
The Lord Chief Justice lives on a palatial estate in the English countryside. He and his wife grudgingly accept their mixed-race niece into the family. Lord and Lady Mansfield are doing the same for another niece. Immediately, the two half-nieces hit it off.
We are treated to several lovely long shots of the girls literally “at play in the fields of The Lord”. I’m not sure if that’s director Amma Asante’s picturesque joke, or just my wacky play on words, but, on the final of these shots of the children at play, one chases the other around a huge tree. They reenter the scene as fully developed young women, some dozen or so years later. It’s a great visual. And at this point the film slows down a bit, and the afore-mentioned issues surface and are given their due.
I should mention that Belle is based on a true story. Many of the details are, of necessity, benignly apocryphal. But most of the issues were, and still are, of such moment and significance that Belle is a must see for those with a morally vested interest in equality and justice.
I had never heard of the Zone case. But at the time, it was working its way through the court system and would ultimately land on the desk of The Lord Chief Justice. It involved the mass murder of a shipload of slaves. They had become ill, and hence worthless, as property. The unscrupulous Captain of the ship concocted a scheme that would – supposedly, legally allow him to cast the slaves into the ocean and collect insurance for his losses. The rationale was that there was not enough water for everyone and that the only way to save the crew was to drown the slaves. The insurance company refused to honor the claim, and so the Captain and his company sued for damages.
You could Google the results, but I suggest you sate your curiosity by watching the movie.
I haven’t mentioned that Tom Wilkinson plays the part of Lord Mansfield, and Emily Watson, his wife. The eponymous Belle, called Dido in the film, is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Her character is blessed with beauty and brains – a foil for the bigotry and ignorance of the times.
There’s a lot going on in Belle, and it’s not a perfect film, but it held my interest for three viewings. I suggest you give it a chance.