Recently there have been a plethora of films based on real- life, unknown characters, with the absence of fiction even mediocre movies generate positive responses: “The Railway Man” (Erik Lomax); “Walking With the Enemy” (Pincas Tibor Rosenbaum) and “Belle”, directed by Amma Asante, the remarkable story of “Dido Elizabeth Belle” an aristocratic woman of mixed race; raised by her great -uncle in the latter part of the eighteenth century, Britain. The film was inspired by a 1779 painting of Belle and her cousin “Lady Elizabeth Murray”; beautiful young girls, the painting resonates with perfectly balanced chiaroscuro.
“Belle’s” power lies in the relationship between Belle and Elizabeth, the same age, and in the marriage milieu; Belle is exquisitely depicted by Gugu Mbatha-Raw; and Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth shimmers with ebullient grace; both capture the happiness, of a care-free, privileged, protected existence. There is no hierarchy in their friendship; sharing the same bedroom, gifting their secrets. The major anomaly is that Belle is an heiress, while Elizabeth is penniless.
Heroes populate this intriguing film: Belle’s father, “Admiral Lindsay” (Matthew Goode) places Belle in the care of his uncle “Lord Mansfield” (divinely depicted by Tom Wilkinson); Lord and “Lady Mansfield” (flawless, Emily Watson) raise, educate, love both women, never exhibiting an ounce of discrimination; hence Belle has the confidence of her lineage and the mettle to doff malicious innuendo, and follow the score of her heart. Even titled suitors overlooked Belle’s hue in favor of her fortune.
“Belle” pivotally focuses on the massacre initiated on the slave- ship “Zong”; a heinous, murderous incident where slaves were housed in inhumane conditions, contracted diseases and were cast overboard; 132 lives were sacrificed; the owners of the ship sued the underwriters for the financial equivalent of the lives lost. Lord Mansfield’s decision, presiding over the High Court in 1783, led to the founding of the Abolitionist Party in 1787.
Fine performances transcend the quasi- sensational, melodramatic scenario; shedding light, probing viewers to ponder historical veracities, and contemplate, with hindsight, there effectiveness in today’s contemporary arena.