Saturday, September 13, 2014

DVD: Belle

                                          "What is right can never be impossible!"

Belle tells the story of illegitimate half black daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and her struggle to be accepted into British aristocratic society.

Dido Elizabeth Belle was the mixed race daughter of twenty-four year old John Lindsay, an officer in the British Navy. Lindsay met Belle's mother Maria who was a slave on a ship he had captured while in the West Indies. Lindsay brought Maria back to England where she had a daughter. In 1764 both Maria and John Lindsay returned to Pensacola, Florida and it was at this time that Belle was brought to Lord Mansfield's home. Lindsay took Belle to his great-uncle's summer home in London, Kenwood House to be raised by his aristocratic family. Lindsay's uncle, William Murray was the first Earl of Mansfield and in the latter part of the 1700's was the Lord Chief Justice of England. Mansfield came to be responsible for several seminal decisions against slavery in the late 1700's.

The movie centers around the insurance claim made by the owners of a slave ship, the Zong. The Zong was enroute from West Africa in 1781, carrying a large cargo of slaves destined for Jamaica. The ship began to run out of water and food when the ship sailed into an area of quiet water in the mid-Atlantic, known as "The Doldrums".  With a ship crammed full of 470 slaves, the slaves and crew began to sicken and die. Captain Collingwood decided to throw some of the chained slaves whom he felt were diseased or dying, overboard. In total approximately one hundred forty-two slaves were drowned. When the ship arrived in Jamaica, its owner, James Gregson filed a claim for the loss of his "property". The insurer, disputed the claim, noting that there was plenty of water on board when the ship arrived in Jamaica but a Jamaican court awarded the claim. Thomas Gilbert, the insurance underwriter appealed and the case went before Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield.

When the movie opens, it is 1764 and Britain is both a colonial power AND a major player in the lucrative slave trade. John Lindsay arrives at his great-uncle's lavish home and presents his mixed race daughter, Dido Belle Lindsay, to Lord Mansfield (played by Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (played by Emily Watson), who are already raising Elizabeth Murray, (known as Bette in the movie) the daughter of their nephew, Lord Stormont. They are not happy to receive the little girl into their home because she is dark-skinned, but they accept and tell her they will call her Dido. Dido and Bette grow up as close as sisters, with Dido receiving a good education and all the trappings of an aristocratic life.
"Papa, how is that I am too high in rank to dine with the servants and too low to dine with my family?"
When Belle comes of age, she learns that she will be awarded a yearly income while her cousin, Elizabeth will be penniless, unable to inherit and thus making her prospects for a good marriage remote. Lord Mansfield tells Belle that when they have guests she will not dine with the family nor will she "come out" during the next season in London. She is shocked at this treatment by her beloved "papa". Nevertheless, during family outings, Dido manages to capture the attention of Lord Ashford who is attracted by her beautiful but who tells her he will put aside her poor lineage on the one side to marry her. Although Belle accepts his marriage proposal she feels that it is has not been made in the spirit of true love.

Meanwhile, Dido becomes increasingly aware of her great uncle's involvement in the Zong insurance appeal and begins to develop a relationship with John Davinier (played by Sam Reid) who is working with the abolitionists. Dido and John discover they are of like minds when it comes to all people, regardless of colour, being equal and not chattel to be disposed of. Dido eventually breaks her engagement to Lord Ashford and tells her family of her desire to marry the man she loves, John Davinier. The film concludes with Lord Murray, Chief Justice of England bringing down his decision in the Zong insurance case.

Because so little is known of Dido's life, especially during the period portrayed in the movie, Belle is largely a work of historical fiction that incorporates the Zong trial and her relationship with John Davinier, a steward and not a young lawyer as portrayed in the film. The movie also referenced a painting done in 1779 by an unknown artist that shows Dido Elizabeth Belle with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. This painting hung in Kenwood House in north London until 1922 where it was transferred to Scone Palace in Scotland, the ancestral home of Lord Mansfield. The painting is unique in that it features for the first time a black person as an equal of a white person. Belle is an exquisitely crafted period film with beautiful costuming, well written dialogue and an engaging story. It is well cast with Gugu Mbatha-Raw starring as Dido, Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth Murray and Matthew Goode as Captain Sir John Lindsay.

It is well worth the effort to see this movie which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013 and has now been released on DVD.

You can find out more about the cast and the movie at

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