“Belle”*

*film of 2014, directed by Amma Asante.

On 15 Jun 2014, Mark Kermode reviewed the film for The Guardian:

“…Like Girl with a Pearl Earring (both Tracy Chevalier’s novel and Peter Webber’s subsequent film), Misan Sagay’s inventive script takes inspiration from an enigmatic painting upon which the writer projects a heady mix of fact and fantasy. The unsigned picture at the heart of Belle (which once hung in Hampstead’s grand Kenwood House) depicts what Asante calls “a bi-racial girl, a woman of colour, who’s slightly higher than her white counterpart”, a significant placement implying a social equality extraordinary in the late 18th century. But what does the hand of one young woman upon the waist of the other imply – sisterhood or rivalry? And what should we read from the expressions (playful? defiant? mischievous?) upon the faces of the artist’s subjects?

This much we know; that Dido Elizabeth Belle – the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy captain, John Lindsay, and an African woman named Maria Belle – was raised at Kenwood House in north London by her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, where she became companion to her half-cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. As lord chief justice, Mansfield heard several significant slavery cases, including the 1772 Somerset v Stewart case (which questioned whether slavery was supported by common law), and the Zong ship case, which hinged upon the deliberate drowning of human “cargo”. The latter of these forms the backdrop of Sagay’s narrative, providing an Amistad-like framework for the discussion of human rights versus property law, arcane legal argument circling absolute moral imperative…

“I have been blessed with freedom twice over,” Dido tells her soulmate, when financial stability offers the possibility of a future in which the rules of both marital and racial status are overturned. This is the heart of Asante’s enjoyable and uplifting film, which seeks always to broaden its canvas and address the widest possible audience. Building on the promise of her award-winning 2004 debut feature A Way of Life, Belle confirms Asante as an assured and insightful film-maker who knows just how much window dressing a picture requires to make it appealing to the eye. Embracing sentiment without going soft on substance, she hides her stronger purpose beneath a facade of gentility in a manner that would make Jane Austen smile. Bravo!”

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