Review: ‘Belle’ – Not your average ‘frock flick’

Review: ‘Belle’ – Not your average ‘frock flick’

Last night, I didn’t fly to New York.

Virgin Atlantic had been running a competition to celebrate their 30th birthday, in which 30 people (or pairs of travellers) who found themselves in the right place at the right time, with their passports, all packed and ready, would be whisked off to New York for the weekend.

I was pipped at the post, and found myself all hyped-up with nowhere to go.

So I started casting around for things to do on a Friday evening when you’re not flying to New York and remembered there was a film I’d been vaguely wanting to see, Belle.

‘That will be better than nothing,’ I thought, and I’m so glad I did.

Belle has made almost no splash over here (I don’t know how much it has received in the US, but I imagine very little). It was inspired by this painting that used to hang in Kenwood House, Hampstead, and most of the publicity seems to centre around that:

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle (left) and Lady Elizabeth Murray. From the collection of the Earl of Mansfield, Scone Palace, Perth.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle (left) and Lady Elizabeth Murray. From the collection of the Earl of Mansfield, Scone Palace, Perth.

The description on the Kenwood House website, for example, says:

The story of the film focuses on Dido Belle, the illegitimate mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral, raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her illegitimacy and the colour of her skin prevents her from fully participating in the traditions of her social standing. The film explores the struggles Dido may have faced in personal life during a time when slavery was common place.

While this is true, it is only part of the story. The drama of the film centers both around the places in society of two young women – one with a fortune, one without; one accepted by society, the other an oddity at best – and around a legal case brought before the girls’ guardian, their great uncle Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice.

The case was a disputed insurance claim – a ship claimed it had been forced to offload some of its cargo before arrival at port and, being unable to sell it, was seeking recompense from its insurers.

The ship was called the Zong, and the cargo was human beings.

They were Africans who had been captured and were en route to the slave plantations in the Caribbean. They were kept in such poor, cramped, unsanitary conditions that many of them became diseased. Knowing that this would make them impossible to sell at market, the Captain ordered that they be chained together and thrown overboard. The story was that there was insufficient water on board for the crew and slaves, so in order to preserve some lives, others had to be sacrificed.

The insurers were disputing the claim, which had gone through the lower courts and had now arrived on Lord Mansfield’s docket.

Mansfield is depicted, in the film, as a good man who seeks to do what is right, and the film reverberates with his adherence to the principle of ‘Fiat justitia ruat caelum‘ – Let justice be done, though the heavens descend.

The heavens descending is a reference to the implications for British society if he overturns the law on insuring human beings as though they were cargo. Much of Britain’s wealth at the time relied on the slave trade, and Mansfield was under considerable pressure not to upset the boat (excuse the pun!).

Juxtapose this with the fact that his ‘most loved’ ward was mixed race, and her cousin Elizabeth, also his ward, with whom Belle has grown up, was faced with the ignominy of being forced to secure a husband in order to survive, and all of a sudden the questions become personal. How do we value people? What is a person’s worth based on? Her colour? Her fortune? Her parentage? Her position in society? The decisions Mansfield faced, both in his court and in his home, struck at the heart of everything he and those of his class and rank knew and believed.

Miranda Richardson, playing the mother of two young suitors of Belle and Elizabeth, captures the anomaly beautifully – her words and facial expressions charting her fluctuations between disdain, intrigue, avarice and distaste, and Lord Mansfield’s dilemmas are also very well handled and executed.

It is a beautiful drama, wonderfully shot, with exquisite costumes and sets, and outstanding acting all round, but its central themes of worth, justice and courage raise it far above just another ‘frock flick’ (as I saw one reviewer call them!) to an excellent and thought-provoking piece of drama.

It has also given me another wonderful quotation to hang on to:

What is right can never be impossible.

Amen.

My rating: 5/5 – Go and see it, at the earliest possible opportunity!

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