Belle of the Ball

With all the movies released each year, it’s impossible to see them all. Even established critics for media sources will miss some. And much of what slips by under the radar are the dregs that deserve to be missed. However, sometimes a gem gets flushed away with the silt that’s surrounding it. The premium channels and streaming services give us a second chance to uncover the missed diamonds. Currently HBO is featuring a British beauty that was only in limited release in the US last year: Belle.

The titular character is Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of Capt. (later Admiral) Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) who saved her mother from a slave ship. After her mother’s death, Lindsay arranges the child’s passage to England where he places her in the home of his granduncle, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), the 1st Earl of Mansfield and the Lord High Magistrate of England. Lord Mansfield and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) had no children of their own, but along with Dido they raised their niece Elizabeth Murray following her mother’s death and her father disowning her in favor of his new wife and family. Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) grow into beautiful women, but both are constrained by 18th Century society.

Elizabeth has no inheritance or land, which handicaps her when seeking a suitor. One who is interested is James Ashford (Tom Fenton), though he is offended by Dido’s existence, even though his brother Oliver (James Norton) finds her attractive. Dido’s not allowed to join the family for dinner when they have guests. Even though Sir John acknowledged her as his daughter and made her his heir, he wasn’t married to Dido’s mother. After dinner she’s allowed to join in by the rules of society, since it is a more casual time.

While she’s mostly been protected on Mansfield’s estate, the world starts to impose on her. Part of her awakening comes from John Davinier (Sam Reid), a vicar’s son who’s studying the law under Mansfield’s tutelage. He tells her of a case Mansfield is considering between the owners of the slave ship Zong and their insurers. The owners claim that the ship ran low on water so they had to throw their cargo – slaves – overboard so the crew could survive, but the insurers have refused to reimburse them for their loss. Davinier, an ardent abolitionist, believes there is more to the case, but his passion gets him dismissed by Mansfield. Still, it has begun an awakening in Dido.

The movie begins with the “based on a true story” notation, which for Hollywood is code for “most of this is made up.” However, English films usually stay very close to the actual events, and that is the case with Belle. Zong was a landmark case – it was also known as the Zong Massacre – and Mansfield was a major force in English government and jurisprudence. One of his friends and clients was Sarah Churchill, the wife of the first Duke of Marlborough. His decision in the Zong case and others had a profound effect on England. Some of the details of Dido and Davinier are more fanciful, but it does make for a wonderful love story.

I’d first noticed Gugu Mbatha-Raw when she played Martha Jones’ sister Tish during the third season of the new “Doctor Who.” She was the best part of the Tom Hanks movie Larry Crowne, and she has three upcoming features in postproduction or filming where she stars with Matthew McConaughey, Will Smith, and Keanu Reeves, so her profile should definitely rise. The camera loves her and it reads every nuance on her face and in her body language. Her performance as Dido is seamless and beautiful to behold.

The rest of the cast is sterling, especially Wilkinson and Watson as Lord and Lady Mansfield. While showing characteristic English restraint, you also see the depth of their love for Dido. Rounding out the cast is Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford and Penelope Wilton as Mansfield’s spinster sister.

The movie was directed by Amma Asante, who began as a child actress but moved up to the hyphenate writer-director-producer. The Writer’s Guild of America gave credit for the screenplay solely to Misan Sagay, who also wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God. There was a question, however, about multiple of rewrites that Asante did. Regardless, it is an effective screenplay that both presents the story and captures the era.

Look for this movie, and if you get the chance, watch it.

Detail from a painting of the actual Dido Belle and Elisabeth Murray

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