Belle (2014)

BelleWell aware that the Royal Navy is no place for a young girl, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) leaves his daughter in the care of his uncle, one William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice. Unlike her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who also resides at the Murray’s Kenwood House estate, Dido Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is of mixed-race. While behind closed doors she may be a fully-fledged member of the family, in public she faces many of the same prejudices as any other non-white individual. Particularly affronted by her presence are the Ashfords, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) and eldest son James (Tom Felton) especially, who practically balk every time they set eyes on her. However, when it is revealed that Belle in fact boasts a substantially larger dowry than Elizabeth, younger brother Oliver Ashford (James Norton) puts his prejudices aside long enough to ask for her hand in marriage. Belle’s own affections lie with John Davinier (Sam Reid), however, an aspiring and unusually liberal lawyer with a vested interest in the Gregson v. Gilbert case, over which Lord Mansfield is presiding.

Inspired by a portrait which today hangs at Scone Palace in Perthshire, Belle tells the extraordinary true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who, in a unique example of 18th Century equality, is featured as predominantly as Lady Elizabeth Murray. What makes the story even more remarkable, however, is the role that Belle appears to have played in her great uncle’s career and in the politics of her time. Mansfield presided over two landmark cases, the latter of which is dramatised here. The Zong massacre, as it’s become known, concerned the killing of over a hundred African slaves, for which the owners had the gall to file an insurance claim, seeking compensation for the perceived loss of property. While the owners insisted that their actions were unavoidable, Dido and Davinier had evidence that the tragedy could have been averted.

Slavery is still very much a hot topic, not just in cinema thanks to 12 Years A Slave but in the real world too — where despite being illegal the world over there are still millions of slaves working today. While the film might pay lip-service to abolitionism and racial equality, however, it never really tackles the subject head-on. After all, protestation would be far too unbecoming of this pretty but ultimately quite petty little period picture, which spends much of its running time flittling between mama and papa, dealing with the same class wars that pervade almost all historical fiction, particularly when the focus is British gentry. The slave trade seems a long way off when you’re frolicking in the grounds with young socialites, and even when Dido is inevitably subject to racism as well as sexism it is hard to relate her individual struggle with that of those lost at sea. Everything is so polite, poised and proper that injustice seems rude rather than wrong.

Newcomer Mbatha-Raw impresses on a pantomime level, alternating didactically between confusion and concern, for she is rarely required to do more than purse her lips and furrow her brow. Misan Sagay’s script sounds authentic enough but seems to hinder the performances of anyone left to grapple with it. As is typical of most costume dramas there is a distinct discrepancy between language and expression in general; dialogue is stripped of nuance while actors are left rambling on long after the moment has passed and their convictions waned. Every character emotes, but very few manage to engage emotionally, which has disastrous consequences for poor Matthew Goode, who almost immediately sets the bar for stilted delivery, and for Tom Felton, who keeps vaulting it. Given how triumphant or devastating the climax should be (depending on which way Lord Mansfield rules and whether he gives Belle his blessing) it really is unforgivable just how anticlimactic it actually feels.

Dido Belle Lindsay is a historical curiosity, and if nothing else the film should be enough to convince you to seek out the portrait and learn more about a truly remarkable woman.  As a drama, however, Belle isn’t particularly special at all. It’s cold, tedious and impenetrable; it’s a strangely exclusive film that somewhat ironically preaches understanding and acceptance.

2-stars (1)

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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