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DIRECTOR: Amma Asante
CAST: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, James Norton, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson
CLASSIFICATION: 16 P
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
THERE is a painting that hangs in the Scone Palace in Scotland that used to hang at Kenwood House in London, home of William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield.
It depicts Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray and it was one of the first European portraits to show a black subject on an equal eyeline with a white aristocrat.
This painting, and the relationship between these two women, forms a huge part of this drama, which is centred on Belle (Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Mansfield’s nephew.
Fairly little is known about how Belle lived, so screenwriter Misan Sagan and director Amma Asante had a lot of artistic licence to fill in the blanks, and what they cleverly delve into is the possible emotional repercussions.
The film 12 Years a Slave did the same thing, painting the humanity of the people who were deemed to be property, because theoretically broader society today doesn’t understand the concept of owning a person.
In the film Belle’s life is detailed within the context of Britain’s slave-based economy, as it is about to enter its decline. We get an understanding of her relationships with her family and, more specifically, the work of her great-uncle, since William Murray (Wilkinson) was the Lord Chief Justice of England, working on important cases with legal repercussions for Britain’s slave trade.
More importantly, we get an insight into the complexity of a person of mixed race trying to straddle society’s expectations. The disjunction between growing up in an educated aristocratic setting, but being seen as lesser because of your skin colour, which theoretically makes you property, is made evident through Belle’s confusion about her identity.
Mbatha-Raw (the daughter of a black South African and a white English nurse) conveys the perplexity of not being one thing or the other. She is secure in the knowledge that her family love her, but uncertain about where she fits into broader society because the reality of the moment does not want to accept her existence.
The film’s underlying social conscience is modern, whereas the art direction and costumes all scream Merchant Ivory (though thankfully are less languid). The details – like the information about the Zong massacre – are interesting and not presented as an info dump, but worked nicely into the storyline.
Penelope Wilton, as the spinster aunt who runs the household, brings a bit of the preciseness (no, not precision) she picked up from Downton Abbey, while Emily Watson is calm and light as Lady Mansfield.
Miranda Richardson is delightfully underhanded as Lady Ashford, who changes her tune quickly when she realises Belle is an heiress in her own right, while Wilkinson is a study in the art of straddling the fine line between breaking the rules and keeping within the law.
Ultimately the film is about opposites – the tension between the underlying emotion and the polite formal language, the disjunct between society’s expectation and Belle’s capability, the weirdness of being seen as subhuman while also being courted because you have money, unlike many other women of your time.
It is a well-crafted tale that brings humanity to an issue that continues to resonate, even in a time when slavery theoretically does not exist: How do you fit into a society that sees your skin colour first, negating your humanity?
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