Friday, May 9, 2014

Belle: Rings a robust note

Belle (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG, and mostly harmless, aside from an unexpectedly vulgar sexual assault

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.9.14

Even under dire circumstances, virtuous individuals will stand against the entrenched horror of grim mob rule, risking social censure at best, their very lives at worst.

With her future — and happiness — on the line, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, left) accepts
some sage relationship advice from her foster mother, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson),
before determining what her gentleman caller has in mind.
Oskar Schindler clandestinely defied Nazis and saved the roughly 1,200 Jews employed in his German factories. Civil rights activist César Chávez essentially shamed the United States into acknowledging and improving the wretched conditions under which primarily Latino laborers harvested foodstuffs. Polish shipyard worker Lech Walesa founded the Solidarity Movement that led to the fall of communism in his own country, and likely hastened the demise of the Soviet Union.

Which brings us to William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield, a late 18th century barrister, politician and judge whose enlightened but highly unpopular decisions did much to encourage England’s eradication of slavery and the financially lucrative slave trade.

Murray may not be the central character in director Amma Asante’s thoroughly engaging Belle, but his presence looms large over the events depicted in this period drama. I must point out, however, that Misan Sagay’s script is far more fancy than fact; she plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, and it’s best to regard this depiction of Dido Elizabeth Belle as wish-fulfillment ... a suggestion of what might (should?) have been, rather than what was.

Sagay candidly admits, in this film’s press notes, that she was “inspired” to write this story after viewing a painting displayed at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. The 1779 work, a typically aristocratic portrait at one time credited to Johann Zoffany, depicts two beautifully outfitted young women — one black, one white — who, from their stance and expressions, appear to be both affectionate friends and equals.

Which, needless to say, would have been quite unusual at the time.

Asante and Sagay adhere closely to established fact during a brief prologue, with Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) bringing his illegitimate mixed-race daughter, Dido, to be raised at Hampstead’s Kenwood House by his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), while he returns to his naval duties. This childless couple already are raising another grand-niece, Elizabeth Murray, roughly the same age as Dido (which makes them third cousins, if I have that straight).

Lord and Lady Mansfield likely initially accept Dido as a companion for Elizabeth, but there’s no question that the former grows up in privileged surroundings, well treated in a household that tolerates both her illegitimacy and dark skin.

Time passes; the girls grow to young adulthood, now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Dido) and Sarah Gadon (Elizabeth). Asante executes this flash-forward quite charmingly, introducing us to young women who clearly adore each other. But on the eve of their “coming out” in society, not even Lord Mansfield’s progressive nature can overcome the reflexive social prejudice that greets Dido’s very presence.

When the Mansfields entertain guests, Dido does not dine with the gathered company, although she’s allowed in the drawing room, for post-meal festivities. Asante and Sagay also stack the deck rather severely; Dido is far more intelligent, perceptive and accomplished than the somewhat vacuous Elizabeth.

This film’s great strength is Mbatha-Raw’s heartfelt and persuasive handling of the title role: a deeply moving performance that touches our very souls ... as, indeed, it seems the actress reached into hers. Events and transitions that come naturally to aristocratic young women conspire to confront Dido with the cruel reality of her “station” in English society, and each revelation creates another anguished crease across Mbatha-Raw’s luxurious features.

Merely seeing her upset and unhappy seems a crime against nature ... and it’s far worse, of course, because we understand the racist reasons behind the barriers that prevent Dido from becoming the best person she could be.

Not that this diminishes her spirit. Sagay grants Dido with the quick wit and tart tongue of a Jane Austen heroine, and Mbatha-Raw excels at delivering these saucy bon mots and double-entendres. It’s deliciously amusing to watch the way she “handles” people: strangers, Kenwood House staff and even Lord Mansfield himself, whom she regards as a her father.

And, in the typically Austenian tradition, Dido initially has little use or patience for John Davinier (Sam Reid), the progressive-minded parson’s son who hopes for a legal career, and thus positions himself as an apprentice to Lord Mansfield. Despite the barbed comments that fly between Dido and John, they fool nobody ... not us, and not even Elizabeth.

As love begins to blossom in various directions, Sagay intensifies the dramatic tension by making Dido extraordinarily wealthy, when her father dies off-camera; contrasting her with Elizabeth, who is penniless (a detail that Lord and Lady Mansfield take pains to conceal). This is crucial at a time when eligible aristocratic ladies were expected to greet potential husbands with dowries of land and/or wealth.

The prospective suitors arrive in the form of brothers Oliver and James Ashford (James Norton, Tom Felton), beloved sons of the haughty and unapologetically racist Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson, at her waspish finest). Oliver, who seems a genuinely decent sort, takes a shine to Dido: a gesture tolerated by Lady Ashford solely because their family desperately needs the funds that Dido’s inheritance could provide.

James, in turn, is encouraged to direct his attention to Elizabeth ... although this is under the belief that she, as well, can provide a substantial dowry.

The slimy, thoroughly unpleasant James has none of his brother’s finer virtues, and Felton plays him with the same smarmy malice that made his Draco Malfoy so memorably unpleasant in all of the Harry Potter films. Indeed, the thuggish James is responsible for this film’s one genuinely shocking act.

Although these interwoven courtship details occupy considerable screen time, far more important issues are taking place in London’s hallowed halls.

The actual Lord Mansfield was responsible for two key legal decisions that changed the face of slavery in England: Somerset v. Stewart (1772) and the 1783 appeal that led to his breathtaking verdict in the Zong massacre, a precedent-setting incident that erupted when the crew of a Liverpool-based slave-trading ship of that name threw 142 chained slaves overboard and then attempted to claim an insurance payment for “loss of cargo.”

Sagay’s script focuses solely on the Zong trial, which is shown to obsess Lord Mansfield for many weeks (months?), given the gravity of a verdict either way. The passionate John Davinier argues the abolitionist view, augmented by his religious conviction that people are not “cargo,” to be disposed of when convenient; Dido, needing no encouragement to strike a blow for her own heritage, winds up in the middle.

Sagay would have us believe that Dido played a key role in Lord Mansfield’s eventual decision, and their impassioned arguments here certain resonate with our (one hopes) more progressive 21st century sensibilities. To be sure, it makes for great drama, particularly with the emotional heft that we get from the increasingly harsh words exchanged between a doting father figure and his surrogate daughter.

But “drama” is the operative word here. Dido’s mere presence in Lord Mansfield’s household, from such an early age, clearly defines the man’s progressive sensibilities; any suggestion that Dido argued her position with the savvy of a seasoned debater, as she reached maturity, likely is no more than wishful thinking ... just as James and Oliver Ashford, their imperious mother, Elizabeth’s poverty and Dido’s wealth, are wholly fictitious characters and details.

John Davinier did exist, although he was a French gentleman’s steward: not a parson’s son, and certainly not a barrister-in-training. That said, Reid makes a dashing romantic lead, often caught up in his own mildly amusing formality.

Wilkinson is perfectly cast as the wise, compassionate but deeply conflicted Lord Mansfield: a man with the weight of England on his shoulders. Wilkinson always is excellent in roles that require solemnity and measured severity; nobody ever needs to tell us that Lord Mansfield is an important figure, because Wilkinson projects that merely by walking into a room.

Watson remains quiet for much of the film, observing much and saying little, but her Lady Mansfield clearly sides with the angels. When it comes time for her to weigh in on a matter, Watson unerringly navigates the fine line between being a gentle and savvy observer of human nature, and a titled wife who knows her place in the world (as opposed to Mbatha-Raw’s Dido, who quickly becomes much too free-thinking and outspoken for her time and place).

Penelope Wilton is a treat as Lady Mary Murray, the Kenwood house “spinster” who initially seems little more than an exasperated foil for Dido and Elizabeth, but eventually shows some welcome moral fiber of her own.

The film belongs to Mbatha-Raw, though, whose intensity, torment and moral convictions can’t help inspiring us. She’s a worthy heroine, and this is an excellent showcase role for an actress thus far best known for lighter fare such as her supporting part as Tom Hanks’ “makeover expert” in 2011’s Larry Crowne, or as the happily married CIA operative in TV’s short-lived Undercovers.

If Belle leads to better roles, well and good. And if it prompts curious viewers to further investigate Dido Elizabeth Belle, Lord Mansfield and the Zong decision, also well and good.

But please: Don’t view this film as anything remotely approaching historical fact.

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