Review by Barry Cox
Cast: Gugu-Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson
Dir: Amma Asante
Release Date: 13th June 2014 (UK)
I am not really a fan of period dramas, so it’s best I get that out the way now. However, I didn’t allow my narrow-mindedness to affect what I hope is an impartial review. So, here it is.
Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate child of John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a good honest man, and a Captain in Royal Navy. It is in the opening moments of the film we see father and daughter meeting for the first time after the death of her mother, a wonderfully cherished moment that really sets up the emphasis of the film. Realising that a ship is no place for a young black girl, the Captain heads for England, where his great uncle, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson); the 1st Earl of Mansfield, and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales resides with his wife, Lady Mansfield, (Emily Watson).
With the Captain bound to his duties, he leaves young Dido to be taken care of by his family. Needless to say, an aristocratic family, with deep ties in politics and society alike, having an illegitimate child dumped on their doorstep is fragile enough, but a black girl at that, makes matters even more formidable.
The story of the titular character is based around historical fiction. Inspired by the 1779 painting by an unknown artist (long thought to have been by Johann Zoffany), which now hangs at Scone Palace, Scotland. A beautiful piece of art, although it’s an audacious premise for a big screen adaptation.
We continue to follow the story as the girl becomes a young woman. A sharp, and intelligent individual who is fast learning the ways of the world, all whilst being sheltered from it by her great uncle, yet he is unable protect her from all things, especially matters of the heart.
Her introduction to John Davinier (Sam Reid) is sure sign of where the story will go, a little too obvious, perhaps? Davinier, a prodigious law student and pro-abolitionist, who has his sights set on changing the world. Davinier, who is clearly fighting for the affection of Dido, becomes embattled with her uncle, over the case of the Zong. A ship carrying human cargo as its trade, when it claims to have run out of drinking water and then had to sacrifice its cargo before making it to its destination. The two are at logger-heads over the case, Lord Mansfield, clearly bound by his duties as Chief Justice, to ensure that justice is done, and Davinier who clearly has an emotional attachment to the case, is pushing for a more long term solution for the destitute. Many a great scene in the film comes when Wilkinson and Reid share the screen. The quick-witted, and sharp-tongued dialogue between one another, make for a fascinating watch and gives a sense of genuine elation.
Filmed on location in the Isle of Man, London and Oxford, the film is a mix of sorts, a coming of age drama, a race story and one of social inequities. All set in the 18th Century.
Shot on 4K camera by Ben Smithard (The Damned United, My Week with Marilyn) he captures the beauty in a time filled with horror and exploitation. The design and look of the film is certainly very candid on the eye and the costumes are as you’d expect from a period drama, lavishly created and they each character looks divine. Topped off with a simple, yet not to punctuated score by Rachel Portman (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules), it flows throughout with eloquence.
In summary, Amma Asante’s Belle leaves its mark. A very profound film with a story that hits the right notes. The performances are sincere and impressive, and whilst we have seen recent films look at slavery, this one is more reigned in and less grand in terms of scale, but quite opulent in its execution. I did feel that the scale of the film, whilst it is a profound and worthy tale, it would have been better suited to a mini-series on the small screen, not because the story isn’t going to find its core demographic on the silver screen, just that it will be rather limited, nonetheless, it definitely deserves your attention..