Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Belle: Battling Law & Propriety

Belle was released in May, which is not an ideal time for a period drama that deals with the question of the slave trade in 1700s Britain. But if you missed it in theaters, it might now be worth your while to seek it out.

Belle tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman who is raised by her English aunt and uncle after her mother dies in the West Indies and her father, an English Naval captain, brings her home to his relatives. Her father freely gives her his name and exhorts his relations to take care of her as they would any legitimate daughter. Dido is played wonderfully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who does everything she can to bring this quiet but expressive character to life. Initially, Dido seems satisfied with the the status quo, but as she grows older, the unfairness of her position in society and the differing standards in the way she and her white cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) are raised start to wear on her. Race is of course the foremost theme, but Dido also questions the limitations placed on her due to being a woman. Despite being white, her penniless cousin still suffers in her quest to find a husband who can support her, while Dido is courted by a "suitable" man who is mostly interested in the independent fortune left to her by her father. 

Things change after Dido meets John Davinier (Sam Reid), an idealistic young man who hopes to be a lawyer. He is studying under her uncle, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), who happens to be the Lord Chief Justice of England. Murray has to deliberate on a very important ruling regarding the drowning of slaves on a slave ship, and his decision could impact the future of slavery across the British Empire. While he strives to be impartial and legal about it, Dido and John appeal to his emotions and emphasize the need to view this as a deeply moral and ethical issue. 

Belle is a beautifully made movie with a very predictable plot. It seems like a Jane Austen novel, complete with unsuitable suitors, spinster aunts, and questions of propriety. However, it is based on a true story - Dido Belle was a real woman who was raised by William Murray, and while the movie has to imagine the events of her life, it presents a very compelling tale. The power of the movie lies in the few scenes where images or actions speak louder than words: Dido beating her chest and scrubbing her skin as though she can tear the troublesome blackness off her; her fear of having a portrait painted of her and her cousin gradually explained by viewing the portraits around her that always position the black subjects in inferior positions to the white ones; her delight when she finally meets a black maid who can teach her how to comb her hair. 

Belle is an important history lesson couched in palatable Hollywood storytelling. It features a wonderful performance from Mbatha-Raw, and is a decent introduction to slavery from the British perspective, when we are far more used to hearing the American version. It serves as a stepping stone to learning more about the real-life events that inspired the abolitionist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries and offers a tantalizing look at how one woman may have altered the course of history.

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