From any perspective “Belle” (2013) is beautiful. The story of this narrative feature film is remarkable and poignant. The title character, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) radiates character, equanimity, charm and physical beauty.
Dido is the illegitimate daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). Sir John refuses to relegate his mulatto daughter to the inevitable life of poverty and degradation to which a half-black person of late 18th-century England was destined. Instead Lindsay delivers his daughter to his uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and aunt Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) with the demand that they raise young Dido as a member of the family. As expected, Lord and Lady Mansfield are resistant to the notion – hardly a scenario acceptable in English society of the time. Recognizing the sincerity and determination of their nephew the Mansfields agree to accept their great niece as a member of their household.
Lord Mansfield was not your everyday member of English aristocracy – pompous, self absorbed and largely concerned with preservation of the privileged status quo. Lord Mansfield was also the Chief Justice of the English Supreme Court and a man of kindness and justice. As such, young Dido is raised as an English Lady and treated as an equal to her half-cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) who is also a ward of the Mansfield family. Dido and Elizabeth become virtual sisters who are treated equally well by the Mansfields.
Certain social conditions of the time make full equality impossible even in the egalitarian Mansfield family. As an illegitimate child Dido is not allowed to participate in certain social activities. Lord and Lady Mansfield, however, insist that Dido be allowed to “sit-out” these activities and still be presented as a full and beloved member of the family – an interesting balancing act.
While Lord Mansfield is a devoted and loving father figure to both Dido and Elizabeth, he clearly favors Dido for her keen intellect, independent spirit and self-assurance. Nonetheless, Lord Mansfield is constrained by some of the social conditions of the period. Tom Wilkinson was the perfect selection for this conflicted role. Wilkinson has the ability to be stern and remarkably kind at the same time. Emily Watson was also well-cast in this regard.
As Chief Justice of the English Supreme Court Lord Mansfield was also grappling with a landmark case — the Zong massacre. This case involved the drowning of more than 140 Africans who were being transported by ship (the Zong) to be sold as slaves. The owners of the Zong made an insurance claim to recover the insured value of their cargo claiming that these enslaved passengers were “cargo” and they were jettisoned at sea to save the crew that was running low on potable water. The exact details of the case were complex and ultimately revolved around the question of the status of slaves as either cargo (and insurable as such) or as human beings.
In the mean time Dido and Elizabeth are being “shopped around” for marriage purposes. Dido’s father Captain (now Admiral) Lindsay has died and left her a substantial inheritance. Her wealth has made her a prime target for fortune-hunting young, but impoverished, gentlemen. Dido, however has fallen in love with John Davinier (Sam Reid) the son of a clergyman – generally not considered worthy of an English Lady. Davinier is an aspiring attorney and abolitionist who sees the monumental importance of the Zong case on the future of the English slave trade. I will not discuss the details of Dido‘s and John’s relationship nor the outcome of the case and Chief Justice Mansfield’s decision.
“Belle” is a must-see film that explores a number of seminal social, humanitarian and economic issues extant in the 18th century and, sadly, today as well. See it on the big screen if possible.
Bernard A. Karshmer is a professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. He is a past chair of the Denver Film Society and International Film Festival and currently chairs the Denver County Cultural Council.