On Wednesday, I attended the advanced screening of Amma Asante‘s Belle at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas. The film commenced around 7 and ended around 8:40PM (105 min. long). I had been looking forward to seeing this movie ever since I had heard that it was in development in December 2012. I’ll do my best not to give away any spoilers because I want you to enjoy it as much as I did.
I think a better title would have been Dido or Dido Belle but the latter was already used in a TV movie in 2006. Why Belle? Belle was the surname of Dido’s mother, Maria Belle, who had been a slave. Because Dido was illegitimate, she would have taken on her mother’s surname. Or did Belle also refer to the fact that Dido is beautiful and that her story is beautiful (has a beautiful ‘ending’ and led to something beautiful – the abolition of slavery)?
Although we barely get to see Matthew Goode (he appears in the first 5 minutes of the film) as Sir John Lindsay, he plays a handsome doting father and delivers the most important message to his young daughter, played by Lauren Julien-Box. One can only hope that the real Sir John Lindsay had let his daughter know how much he loved her. My favourite scene with the two is when he carried young Dido, ignoring the shocked stares from the crowd.
We are next introduced to Sir John Lindsay’s aunts and uncle: Lady Mary (historically, Marjorie or Margaery) Murray (Penelope Wilton), the 1st Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), and his wife, Lady Mansfield (Emma Watson). Penelope Wilton (whom most of us know as Isobel Crawley from Downton Abbey) provided the comic relief in the film and reminded me a lot of Mrs. Bennett from Pride & Prejudice. Although Lord and Lady Mansfield, as well as Lady Mary, both appeared to be unkind at first, one must remember the times in which they lived and their main concerns: not only was the child of mixed-heritage, the child was born out-of-wedlock. How would they explain this to the people they encounter?
Fast-forward 15 years or so, we see young Dido and Elizabeth transform to 19-21 years-old Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sarah Gadon. Like her character, Dido, Gugu is also of mixed-heritage (although it is reversed: her mother is English, her father is South African) so I’m certain this must have been particularly exciting for her. I recognised Sarah from watching Murdoch Mysteries; she plays Dr Ogden’s travelling journalist sister, Ruby Ogden. I truly enjoyed watching the close and special relationship both sisters shared.
Next, we are introduced to the Ashfords. We recognise Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford. Miranda always plays such a noble-looking aristocrat or queen though this one is certainly her most disagreeable character. Tom Felton plays the racist and arrogant James Ashford. My friend and I think Tom’s been typecast and it might be nice for once if he could one day not play some annoying character. Playing his brother, Oliver Ashford, is James Norton, whom I had recognised as the groom from Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. Although it appears that he is his brother’s opposite, there was just something about him that didn’t seem right.
Lastly, we are introduced to John Davinier who, although was a Frenchman, speaks Queen’s English without a French accent and is portrayed by Sam Reid. The attractive dark features and passion he had for abolishing slavery reminded me of Ioan Gruffudd as William Wilberforce in Amazing Grace. Just the way he looked at Belle was enough to make me melt in my seat. 🙂
I tried to count how many different outfits Dido had on but I lost count after five simply because I wanted to focus on the story. What I can say is that both Dido and Elizabeth had a new frock in every scene. Neither borrowed each other’s dresses. I think the only time there was a repeat was Dido’s ‘riding’ or ‘outing’ grey frock with hood, which she must have worn at least twice if not thrice (see photo). The least interesting of consumes would be the men’s costumes as the majority seemed to be wearing navy or black with their dashing tricorn hats.
Last month, I wrote a summary of Dido’s life. Since very little is known about her life (I suppose no diaries were found?), the film had to imagine what Dido experienced from the time she was taken to the Mansfields up to the triumph of the Zong case.
In this film, Dido is portrayed as an heiress who, on one hand, must juggle with her role as an aristocrat, and on the other hand, must deal with her racial identity. The film Dido became an heiress after her father had died and left her with £2000. I suppose it would have been too complicated to elaborate that her father had, in fact, two other illegitimate children, each of whom were left with £1000, and did not leave anything for Dido. It also most certainly would not have made sense to the viewers, to see a doting father in the first scene and to be shocked to learn that he did not leave Dido an inheritance. In my last post on Dido, I mused that perhaps it’s because he brought her to Lord Mansfield that he believed he had given her the best inheritance possible. After all, Sir John did not bring his other two illegitimate offspring to his uncle though he probably could have (or was it because both children’s mothers were still alive?).
On the other hand, Lady Elizabeth Murray is portrayed as a penniless daughter of David Murray, who later succeeds Lord Mansfield as the second Earl of Mansfield. The latter may have been too busy with politics to care for a child after his first wife died. Or, as the film points out, he did not care for a daughter and decided to give her up to his uncle. Despite being ‘given up’ by her father, Lady Elizabeth had a higher allowance than her cousin did: £100 annually compared to Dido’s £30 10s (despite the contrast, Dido still earned far more than a domestic servant). Secondly, Lady Elizabeth married before Dido did; Elizabeth married at age 25 in 1785 and went on to have three children. In the film, however, she was in many ways, worse off than Dido. She was not an heiress and therefore had trouble finding a husband. I’m a little surprised Lady Elizabeth married at 25 and not earlier. Was it to keep Dido company? Or was it truly difficult to find someone who was willing to overlook her financial status?
I think it was very interesting to portray Dido as an heiress. Although by wealth, she would have been more desirable than Elizabeth, Dido’s illegitimacy and her mixed-heritage (referred to in this film as mulatto) presented a problem. She would bring ‘shame’ to an aristocratic family but marrying beneath her was out of the question too. It seems, as the Lord Mansfield in the film suggests, that Dido’s best opportunity was to be a ‘housekeeper’ like her spinster aunt Lady Mary. Yet this was certainly not ideal for Dido in the film.
No doubt this was not ideal for the real Dido. Nevertheless, she did help run the dairy and poultry at Kenwood and handled her uncle’s correspondence up until her uncle’s death in March 1793. She married John Davinier in December 1793. I’m not sure when or how she met John Davinier, who, by the way, was a gentleman’s steward, but we know that both were residents of the parish. In the film, Mr. Davinier is the son of a reverend and an aspiring lawyer and abolitionist. Since we really know very little about John, we can assume that he was an abolitionist and that he must have won Dido’s heart somehow. Perhaps it was because of his low station that Dido had to wait until the death of Lord Mansfield to marry him. Or perhaps she had to wait until she herself was left with an inheritance (Lord Mansfield left her with £500 plus £100 annuity). Now that she was a free woman (i.e. not a slave), she could be free to choose without worrying about the social rules of the time.
We do not know how often Dido travelled outside of her Kent home. Nor do we know if she feared having her portrait painted because of the contemporary paintings featuring dark-skinned slaves at the bottom next to or serving a European person (for example, this one). What I did like was the new painting of Dido and Elizabeth. In the original painting, they are around the same height or eye-level. In the new painting, Dido appears taller, thus showing that she was an equal if not higher-up than her cousin, and that her uncle knew how important this was to her.
Lastly, Lord Mansfield’s comments on slavery during the Zong case (around 1780’s) was actually spoken earlier in the Somersett’s Case in 1772. Dido would have been 12 if not 9. Based on the plot of the film, it made sense to move his speech to Dido’s adulthood as that would have made it more significant.
On being mixed
Dido was in a fairly complicated situation. She had to juggle with being a woman in a patriarchal society, being mixed-race in an Anglo society, and being illegitimate in a class/hierarchy society. All the odds were against her yet she was raised an aristocrat. I have already mentioned in my last two posts on Dido that it couldn’t have been easy to grow up as a mixed-race child back then. (In fact, it’s only starting to get better for mixed children nowadays.) The scene I could relate to most was the one in which Dido stares at the mirror in disgust or hatred towards herself. I’m not sure how many mixed kids can relate but it is/was certainly one that I’ve experienced, especially when I was younger. It’s the anger that one’s appearance, because of some dominant genes, prevents one from being treated equally or better.
The three ‘young’ men in the film represent the top three responses people have towards those of mixed-race. James represents those who degrade those of other races, even mixed ones. Oliver sees mixed and visible minorities as ‘exotic’ and ‘fascinating’ but not an equal. John Davinier, like Sir John Lindsay (at least from what we saw), sees all as equal and treats them with respect. I’m glad the film showed the contrasting attitudes towards Dido.
I loved this film and, though it has just come out, cannot wait to buy the movie on iTunes when it’s available. This is certainly one of the movies I could never tire of watching. I highly recommend all of you to see it and I would love to know what you think of it. 🙂
Belle comes out in theatres today, Friday, 16 May, in Montreal and Vancouver. It should have already premiered in Toronto on 9 May. If you’re in Vancouver, you can watch it at Fifth Avenue Cinemas (Cineplex). For showtimes, please check Cineplex or Cinema Clock.
I absolutely LOVED this movie. In my opinion, it’s one of the better period drama films that’s been made in a while. I especially related to the fim being mixed myself. I am, like Dido, half black half white. Fortunately, I never went through a period of resenting my features like how you mentioned Dido did in the mirror scene, but that was definitely a powerful scene!
It’s so wonderful to know what you thought of the movie. 🙂 I am glad to hear that you’ve never resented your features. I agree; Belle is one of the best period drama movies out there. I was lucky enough to visit her childhood home, Kenwood House, four months ago!
Wow, I’m so jealous! It’s one of my dreams to visit the UK. Hopefully I will soon!
That would be lovely! You’ll get to visit all the places of your favourite period dramas. 😉