Jul. 18th, 2014 11:11 am
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"Belle" is yet another answer to a common internet cry. Have you been longing for a period film which shows that chromatic people in history occupied a diverse range of roles? Well, Amma Asante’s "Belle" may just be what you’re looking for.

"Belle" was inspired by a painting of real life cousins Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Elizabeth Murray. The painting originally hung at Kenwood House, where the real life Dido was sent by John Lindsay, her white father, in the 1765. Her father’s uncle the Earl of Hampstead, was the Lord Chief Justice of England at the time and he resided at Kenwood with his wife.

"Belle" presents a fictionalised version of Dido’s life at Kenwood. In the film Dido, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is the equal of her cousin. Although her parents were unmarried and she is of mixed race, she is acknowledged as a Lindsay by her father. When he leaves, she is cherished by her great uncle and aunt, and is encouraged to call them Papa and Mama. And when John Lindsay unfortunately dies at sea she becomes a wealthy, independent heiress.

After looking into the historical detail quickly, it seems there may be a few places where the film departs from fact. Little is known about the detail of the real Dido’s life and, as many historical pieces do, the film may use this dramatic license to allow the fictional Dido more status and romance than she may have really enjoyed. "Belle" makes for a fantastic period drama whatever the historical fact.

As I said, in the film Belle is cherished by her family. At the same time, she isn’t allowed to dine with them because her Papa believes it would be improper. In a rather choppily edited opening section, Dido expresses her confusion about her station by asking ‘how [she] may be too high to dine with the servants, but too low to dine with [her] family?’ This question proves central to the film as Dido seeks to negotiate the complicated rules of propriety that her Papa lives by.

Dido’s life is influenced by the inter-sectional nature of social hierarchy, and her precise status depends on a complex interplay between her race, gender, family connections and wealth. Being legitimately claimed as a Lindsay lends her social status. However, her race puts her at risk of insult and injury despite that status. Her Papa assumes early on that Belle’s race means no gentleman will marry her, and that she will be without a protector or income when he and his wife die.

Luckily, John Lindsay dies he settles an inheritance on Dido which allows her to live independently. This is happy news, but her Papa still believes her race will bury her wealth in the eyes of any true gentleman.

The Earl has, shall we say, a rather naïve view of how a “gentleman’s” mind works when he has empty pockets and few opportunities.

Still, he holds true to this belief and will not entertain the idea of Dido coming out in society. He feels sure that only unsuitable men will offer to marry Dido; men whose position in society would lower her own status, putting her at risk of being treated inappropriately or unkindly by others. For a while, it appears Dido is doomed to be wealthy but a spinster.

The social ramifications of being unmarried in the 1700s meant that even if a straight women was wealthy enough to avoid marrying for security it was a point of status to marry. One of the most emotional scenes takes place when Dido and Elizabeth are informed that it is time for Elizabeth to come out and that Dido will not be joining her:

Elizabeth and Dido hug

It’s clear that this ritual step towards adulthood means everything to these girls because of the society they live in.

This battle between love and propriety is suddenly overcome with some Jane Austen style flair; the wealthy younger son of a Lord forms a serious attachment to Dido. Oliver Ashford finds both Dido’s looks and her wealth attractive. And Dido’s fortune is eventually enough to overcome his mother’s racist objections to the match. Even though he is a younger son without any money, Oliver’s position as the son of a Lord means he is no detriment to Dido’s own position. Her Papa’s concerns are overcome, the question is popped and the most gorgeous ring is slipped onto Dido’s finger.

Unfortunately, Oliver is played by James Norton, so viewers know right off there’s a 90% chance this character will turn out to be a dick. Ashford’s distasteful side is revealed early on in a conversation with his creepy, racist brother. As soon as the word ‘exotic’ popped out of Oliver’s mouth I knew he was the scoundrel not the film’s leading man. Get ready to boo and hiss at this one.

Now, in terms of the times I suppose Oliver Ashford is actually not as bad as he could be. He may want Dido’s money, but he doesn’t intend to deceive her in order to obtain it. Nor does he plan to take her money and abuse her once they’re married. He genuinely admires her, but the problem is that he believes overlooking her race and her matriarchal line is the same as loving her. ‘Why pay any mind to your mother when your better half has given you so many advantages?’ Oliver says tenderly as everyone in the audience cringes. He feels he sees her "true" worth and beauty by looking past her brown skin. In this scene, Oliver is essentially Darcy the first time he proposing to Elizabeth, but with 100% more historical racism.

And then there’s this guy:

Davinier says, What do you know of your mother - Dido says I know very little of her except for the colour she gave me

Davinier says, Well at least then you know she was beautiful

Dido stands with her mouth open

No. Contest.

Meet John Davinier. Davinier is also kind of an ass at first. When he first meets Dido he forgets the propriety of the times and attempts to speak to a woman without an introduction. It’s never made explicit, but it seems that having been reminded of her position recently (Dido has just been told that she can’t eat with the guests) she turns her back on him in order to assert her own right to be treated as any other young woman with a spotless reputation. Of course, being totally focused on his own low social standing, he takes this as a snub from an upper class lady. Doofus.

In their later meetings Davinier goes on to be deliberately rude to repay this slight; after their first meeting, he accords Dido with all the respect due to her family status, but he also mocks her for not being aware of the Zong case her uncle is working on. He essentially treats her as if she were a vapid society girl with no idea of wider politics. This is an interesting response to her character. By treating Dido as if she were some kind of typically disinterested rich girl Davinier treats her as the equal of her white counterparts. However, he ignores the fact that her sheltered life has been imposed on her because of her race, and that she has lived experience of prejudice he should respect. Basically, Davinier is a passionate, political idiot who has to grow quickly in this film to prove to the viewer that he is a worthy champion of political reform. After all, how a man behaves privately opens a window into his true political feelings.

Davinier performs admirably by helping Dido - a woman he loves but can never hope to marry - get involved in political activities that directly affect her. I’m not keen on the male/female teacher/pupil dynamic generally, and Davinier’s race complicates that even further, but as Davinier’s guidance overthrows her Papa’s attempt to keep Dido from the world, I ended up approving in this specific fictional case. Davinier covers himself in further glory when he learns of her engagement; he is sad but respectful, and never uses his feelings for her as a reason to behave improperly. He also comes to understand at least one of his mistakes towards the end of the film, and he apologises. It’s a start, and I came around to the idea of him as a romantic interest for the wonderful Dido.

There’s just no denying that Dido is great! She’s accomplished, smart, kind, brave, passionate, loving and truthful. The film maps Dido’s personal story across the days leading up to the judgement of the Lord Chief Justice in the Zong case; a famous trial where slaves were drowned by a ship’s crew, and the crew then tried to claim insurance for the dead slaves. Dido uncovers vital evidence in the case and is then instrumental in encouraging The Lord Chief Justice to upset the status quo with his ruling.

She also has the courage to break her engagement to Oliver, to strike up a political friendship with Davinier despite the possibility of ‘talk’ and eventually is brave enough to admit her love for him despite the damage he could do to her status. In the end, all of her actions force her Papa to use his own privilege and status to change the world in order to make it work to her best advantage.

Also she’s pretty:

Dido wears a purple silk dress and carries a parasol

"Belle" provides plenty of other things to love. Do you enjoy killer period drama bon mottes? The film dishes those out:

'It is not in my repertoire to keep company with beasts.'

'It would be my greatest misfortune to marry into a family which would carry me as its shame.'

How about loving female friendships? It’s got those too:

Elizabeth and Dido sit in a carriage and stare at each other

Like your female friendships complicated? Belle provides.

Elizabeth and Belle were raised together, and it truly seems that Elizabeth sees Belle as her equal even if the rest of the world makes more of a distinction. In fact, in Elizabeth’s eyes, Dido is more fortunate than she is. Dido is more accomplished at the piano, her father loved her, she has her own fortune and she gets engaged first. Despite all the reasons she might find to be stand offish or revert to easy, jealous prejudice, Elizabeth loves her cousin and they are great friends. The two actresses worked so well together on screen - there was such a wonderful back and forth between them that I quickly found I genuinely believed in their closeness.

The power of the actresses’ on screen relationship was especially well used in the scene where they fight for the first time. After Dido offers to settle some of her fortune on Elizabeth to improve her chances of making a match, Elizabeth says she will use it to marry Oliver’s brother, James. Elizabeth is unaware, but both the viewer and Dido both know that James is a fortune hunting cad, a racist and sexual predator. The snapping exchange that follows Elizabeth’s announcement felt like an argument between people who are angry at each other because they have never had cause to be truly disappointed in each other before. The first blush of anger, sadness and rage springs quick and brutal between these women, and their reactions felt real.

Of course, Dido is in the right. Oh Elizabeth - when your dearest cousin accuses the man you love of assaulting her you should not respond by making a racist argument and calling them a liar! If I had a criticism it would be that Elizabeth never apologises for the hard words she says to Dido in the piano room. Instead, they make up because Elizabeth is again disappointed in love and Dido comforts her.

The comforting though! Let me tell you, there are enough longing looks, and significant pauses between the two to make a strong case for shipping this pair.

Dido’s life and the action in lead up the Zhong case provide an interesting main heart to the "Belle". I also really liked some of the film’s smaller details. Aunt Mary, a spinster companion who manages Kenwood, is often gently mocked by her sister or the two cousins. However, by the end of the film she is given humanity as viewers learn what happened to her one and only suitor. It’s a very touching, simple moment which stands against traditional period portraits of bitter or ridiculous spinsters. And Aunt Mary is the main champion of Dido and Davinier’s growing attachment. With nods and winks she encourages Dido’s interest in Davinier even though everyone else around her deems him unsuitable. Yes, Aunt Mary is on the side of adorable, socially unacceptable romance even if her own chance for marriage has slipped away.

Finally, I loved the inclusion of Mabel. Mabel is a free black Welsh servant who helps Dido when she and Elizabeth travel to London for the season. There’s a quiet but important and touching scene where Mabel offers to help Dido comb her hair. In this scene, she gives her knowledge about black hair that no one in her white family has ever been able to pass on. Mabel makes it clear that as much as her white family love her, it’s important for Dido to having connections with black women and women of mixed race.

And Mable isn’t the only other black character shown. When Dido goes to the courts to hear the ruling on the Zhong case there are black men in the gallery. This makes it clear that Dido isn’t the only black person engaged in the political trial, or with the freedom to attend the case. This is a much needed reminder in a genre which often removes black characters from British history entirely.

Wikipedia has a little more detail on the real life of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and since the film a biography of her life and times has been produced by Paula Byrne. I’d be interested to learn more about the real Dido so I’ll have to add that to my list.

Other Reviews

The Close Historian
The Guardian
Roger Ebert
The London Film Review

Date: 2014-07-19 01:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.pip.verisignlabs.com
I really want to see this. I have a huge crush on Gugu Mbatha-Raw, for one thing: She is so pretty and she speaks several languages and I want to be just like her. And she was in Undercovers, a show I loved despite its utter ridiculousness. :p

Date: 2014-08-12 08:36 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
You've said everything I wanted to say about this movie. It was a little simplistic in its portrayal of racism and my god Tom Felton's character was so incredibly disgusting - it's been a while since I've loathed a character this much - but I really enjoyed it. I hope Gugu Mbatha-Raw gets more work in the future, she's super talented.

Date: 2014-08-12 08:36 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Wait that was Ruby Rose Scarlett


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