As I’ve written before here, many of these “true” stories stretch the truth quite a bit. Such is the case here.
The film is actually inspired by a 1779 painting of Belle beside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. It was commissioned by William Murray, who was at the time Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.
But I don’t mind so much.
Belle tells an engaging story and conveys information about a key moment in England’s history and in the history of the movement to abolish slavery.
After Belle’s mother dies, her father brings her to England to be cared for by his uncle (Tom Wilkinson), Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, at his estate. Despite the social mores of the time, they raise Dido as an aristocrat alongside her cousin Elizabeth.
When the girls reach the age to “come out,” the family looks for a good match for Elizabeth.
Dido, however, has received a large inheritance from her father and doesn’t need to marry wealth. But Mansfield doesn’t want her to marry beneath her either.
As with almost any British show you can name, we’re dealing with classism.
We’ve seen this before—the desire of a young woman to marry for love rather than money. Read Jane Austen for a wonderful examination of this issue. Added to the mix here is racism.
Also new here is the introduction of a famous slavery case, Gregson v. Gilbert, that is key in the annals of the abolitionist movement. Mansfield is to rule on the case, which has to do with a ship that jettisoned its “cargo” of slaves and wants payment from its insurance company for it losses.
Belle meets a young lawyer, John Davinier (Sam Reid), who wants Mansfield to rule against the ship’s owners. This case, often referred to as the Zong massacre, was also the basis of an episode of Garrow’s Law, an old BBC show, where I first heard about it.
There’s not much suspense about the outcome—both of the case and of Belle’s relationship with Davinier.
And while the historical elements are interesting, I feel some caution about films like these.
Belle deals with the racism that existed then, and we view it with a self-righteous disdain for their backward ways. But it doesn’t confront us with our own racist structures today. I realize that’s not the film’s purpose, but I raise the caution for those of us who view it.
The film includes a cast of excellent English actors, including Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Matthew Goode and Penelope Wilton (of Downton Abbey).
Rated PG, Belle is a refreshing way to encounter some English history, think about racism and enjoy a good story. Belle is now available on DVD.