Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Belle [2013]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB () ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  AARP (3 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
AARP.org (M. Grant) review
RE.com (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Belle [2013] (directed by Amma Asante, screenplay by Misan Sagay), inspired by a truly intriguing painting (c. 1778) of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825) commissioned by William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, their great-uncle, in whose household the two had been raised, gives a Jane Austen / Downton Abbeyesque [2010+] [IMDb] telling of the early / young adult years of the two women's lives, with special focus given, of course, on Belle.

Why would the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (played as a child by Lauren Julian Box and later as a young adult by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) be so intriguing?  Well, while Dido's father was a British naval officer, the Admiral Sir John Lindsey (played in the film by Matthew Goode), her mother had been an African slave.  At the beginning of the film, the then Captain Sir John Lindsey brings his daughter to his uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (played in the film by Tom Wilkinson), asking that he raise her "as our own flesh and blood, for indeed she is." Her mother had died and he, out at sea most of the time, would not be able to raise her on his own. 

The "surprise" / "challenge" in Sir Lindsey's request was, of course, that Elizabeth Belle's mother had been an African slave and that she was, therefore, bi-racial.  

Yet Sir Lindsey did seem to know whom to ask as Lord Mansfield along with his wife Lady Mansfield (played in the film by Emily Watson) while themselves childless where already charged with raising another grand-niece of theirs, Elizabeth Murray (played as a child by Cara Jenkins and later as a young adult by Sarah Gadon), who was almost exactly Dido's age and later famously pictured in the painting along with her.  Further, Lord Mansfield, was certainly considered an honest, upright man _of his time_ as he was serving as the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.  Indeed, a good part of the film's intrigue regarded the possible influence that the experience of raising Dido Elizabeth Belle at his home (the "Kenwood House" in Hampstead then just outside of London) had on his decisions regarding the slavery and the slave trade during his time serving as Lord Chief Justice

Here though, as elsewhere, one has to admit that the film did conflate/simplify facts and events even if IMHO the film's spirit remains largely true. 

For instance, it is absolutely true that in 1772, therefore when Dido would have been 11, in his verdict on the Somerset v Stewart Case, Lord Mansfield did declare slavery to be "so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law [statute passed by Parliament or other competent authority]."  Since no such statute in England and Wales existed, slavery was thus rendered illegal in England and Wales.  HOWEVER, the film conflated his verdict in that case with his handing of a subsequent (and truly odious) "insurance claims" case today referred to as the case of the Zong Massacre

In the Zong case, the Liverpool based owners of the slave ship Zong had sued a similarly Liverpool based insurance consortium for compensation of losses after the crew of the Zong "out of necessity" had thrown overboard (drowned/murdered) 42 male slaves being transported for fear that they did not have enough provisions of water for its "entire cargo."  In the Zong Case, Mansfield wrote that "though it shocks one very much" (to the Jury in the original trial) "the Case of Slaves was the same as if Horses were thrown over board... The Question was, whether there was not an Absolute Necessity of for throwing them over board to save the rest..." and he preferred to look for evidence (which he found) that there wasn't an Absolute Necessity to throw the Slaves (cargo) overboard.  (The Zong case subsequently did serve to energize the Abolishionist movement in England, though it was still a decades long slog before the Slave Trade was Abolished (1833) and slaves were emancipated in the British Empire (1834)).

Similarly, IMHO for reasons of plot interest (and subsequent discussion), the film makers chose to make the bi-racial Dido an heiress (in the film she inherits her father's wealth following his death) while her white cousin Elizabeth is left in a lurch by her unthoughtful father.  In reality it was exactly the reverse.  Elizabeth had been well provided for by her father, while Dido received nothing from hers after his death.  In fact, it was Lord Mansfield himself who stepped-in and provided a dowry and income for Dido. 

Finally, the film presents Dido's love interest John Davinier (played in the film by Sam Reid) as the law student son of a Anglican clergyman, when in reality he was an immigrant from France (perhaps a refugee of the French Revolution).

Yet these historical corrections to the film's plot IMHO actually serve to support the impact that the presence of Dido Elizabeth Belle in Lord Mansfield's life (she is self-evidently "the star" and amusingly so in the painting of his two grandnieces that he had commissioned) and how world history may have been changed as a result of it (his court decision did make slavery illegal in England and even when "positive law" did still retain British participation in the slave trade overseas, he did make it clear that he found the institution both "shocking" and "odious" and helped set-up the Parliamentary environment which eventually made it illegal as well). 

It's honestly fascinating to me what interest (and reflection) a single painting can inspire!  So good job folks, good job!  And the film is certainly worth the viewing by young women everywhere, as it makes for a fascinating point of discussion regarding all three of the classifications that have often divided us: race, gender and class.  Again, overall an excellent and thought provoking film.

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