Belle (2013 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Amma Asante|
|Produced by||Damian Jones|
|Written by||Misan Sagay|
|Music by||Rachel Portman|
|Edited by||Pia Di Ciaula|
|Distributed by||Fox Searchlight Pictures|
|Box office||$16.5 million|
Belle is a 2013 British period drama film directed by Amma Asante, written by Misan Sagay and produced by Damian Jones. It stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton and James Norton.
The film is inspired by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle beside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, at Kenwood House, which was commissioned by their great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, then Lord Chief Justice of England. Very little is known about the life of Dido Belle, who was born in the West Indies and was the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Mansfield's nephew, Sir John Lindsay. She is found living in poverty by her father and entrusted to the care of Mansfield and his wife. The fictional film centres on Dido's relationship with an aspiring lawyer; it is set at a time of legal significance, as a court case is heard on what became known as the Zong massacre, when slaves were thrown overboard from a slave ship and the owner filed with his insurance company for the losses. Lord Mansfield rules on this case in England's Court of King's Bench in 1786, in a decision seen to contribute to the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay was born in 1761, the natural daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Captain Sir John Lindsay, a British Royal Navy officer. After Dido's mother's death in 1769, Captain Lindsay takes her from the West Indies slums and entrusts her to his uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, and his wife Elizabeth, who live at Kenwood House, an estate in Hampstead outside London. Lord and Lady Mansfield raise Dido as a free gentlewoman, along with their niece Lady Elizabeth Murray, who came to live with them after her mother died and her father remarried. When the two cousins reach adulthood, the Mansfields commission an oil portrait of their two great-nieces, but Dido is unhappy about sitting for it as she is worried that it will portray her as a subordinate, similar to other portraits she has seen depicting aristocrats with black servants. Dido's father dies and leaves her the generous sum of £2,000 a year, enough to make her an heiress. Lady Elizabeth, by contrast, will have no income from her father, whose son from his new wife has been named his sole heir. Arrangements are made for Elizabeth to have her coming-out to society, but Lord and Lady Mansfield believe no gentleman will agree to marry Dido because of her mixed-race status, as well as concerns of lower ranking men only marrying her for her wealth, she will travel to London with her cousin, she will not be "out" to society.
Lord Mansfield agrees to take a vicar's son, John Davinier, into an apprenticeship for law. In 1783, Mansfield hears the case of Gregson v. Gilbert, regarding the payment of an insurance claim, for slaves killed when thrown overboard by the captain of a slave-ship — an event now known as the Zong massacre. Dido helps her uncle with his correspondence and after John tells her about the Zong case, she begins sneaking correspondence to him which he believes will advance the cause of the abolitionists. Lord Mansfield and John have a disagreement on the main issue of the case. John is told not to see Dido again, and his apprenticeship is at an end. Dido’s aunts, Lady Mansfield and Lady Mary Murray, Lord Mansfield's sister, seek to steer Dido into an engagement with Oliver Ashford, son of a scheming grand dame and younger brother to the bigoted James Ashford. At first James is interested in Elizabeth but stops courting her once he discovers she will have no inheritance. Oliver, who is without fortune, proposes to Dido and she accepts, although she continues to see John. James takes Dido aside, tells her she will disgrace his family's name, then insults and manhandles her. Dido later tells Elizabeth of his true character and says she will give part of her inheritance to her for a dowry so she can find a different match. Lord Mansfield finds out about Dido's visits to John and confronts both of them. During the confrontation, John professes his love for Dido. Sometime later, Dido meets with Oliver and breaks off their engagement.
Dido is relieved when the painting is unveiled, showing her as Elizabeth's equal. She tells Lord Mansfield that the portrait commission proves that he can defy convention. Dido sneaks into the balcony of the Inn of Court, so that she can hear Lord Mansfield narrowly rule that the Gregson slave-trading syndicate, based in Liverpool, is not due insurance payments for the slaves the crew threw overboard during the voyage. The ship's officers claimed they ordered this action because they were out of potable water. Lord Mansfield discovers, however, that the Zong passed by many ports without stopping for more water, before killing the slaves. It appeared to Lord Mansfield that the slaves' quarters were over-crowded, making them sick and not likely to fetch a high price at auction, so the officers decided they would be worth more in insurance payments after their loss. Lord Mansfield sees John and Dido outside the Court after his ruling and says that Dido can only marry a gentleman. Therefore, he agrees to resume John's apprenticeship in law, so that he can become a lawyer. Dido and John share a kiss, both in full acknowledgement of their romantic feelings.
On-screen text informs the viewer that Dido and John married and had two sons (they actually had three), that Elizabeth also married and had children, and that the painting hung at Kenwood House until 1922, when it was moved to Scone Palace in Scotland, the birthplace of Lord Mansfield.
- Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle, the protagonist. She is a strong-willed and well-educated young woman, born from Captain Sir John Lindsay's affair with a slave woman. Since her father acknowledged her as his child and later left her a considerable inheritance, she's part of the high society and free not to pursue a marriage. She gradually befriends John Davinier over the Zong case, and her input eventually leads Lord Mansfield to rule against the traders.
- Tom Wilkinson as William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, the great-uncle of Dido and Elizabeth (Dido's father being the son of Lord Mansfield's sister, and Elizabeth's father the son of Lord Mansfield's brother), who is their guardian since they were children, and whom they address as "Papa". As Lord Chief Justice, he is the most powerful judge in England. Upon Dido's arrival to his mansion, he quickly takes to loving her as if she was his own, despite her heritage.
- Sam Reid as John Davinier, a vicar's son who seeks apprenticeship from Lord Mansfield in pursuit of a career as a lawyer. He's idealistic and passionate in his moral convictions, and meets with an abolitionist group.
- Emily Watson as Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Mansfield, Lord Mansfield's wife. She is very caring toward her nieces, although she sees order and etiquette as essential. She tries very hard to find Elizabeth a suitable match.
- Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth Murray, Elizabeth is cheerful and affectionate toward her cousin Dido, and the two of them are inseparable since childhood and consider themselves sisters. Due to Elizabeth's father having a male heir from his second marriage, she's left without a dowry, which complicates her finding a suitable husband.
- Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford, a scheming lady who attempts to marry off her two sons to the Mansfield girls. She feels contempt for Dido's heritage, but she's able to put that aside in order to let her son James put his hands on Dido's dowry.
- Penelope Wilton as Lady Mary Murray, the manager of the household and governess of Dido and Elizabeth. Her demeanor is firm but caring, and teaches Elizabeth and Dido the ways of etiquette, music and embroidery. She is a spinster but had a one-time gentleman caller.
- Tom Felton as James Ashford, the arrogant firstborn of Lord and Lady Ashford who also shares his mother's contempt for Dido's heritage & even assaults her at one point. He courts Elizabeth until he discovers her impoverished status.
- James Norton as Oliver Ashford, the younger son of Lord and Lady Ashford. He is attracted to Dido's beauty and wealth, but he is not completely immune from his family's prejudices.
- Matthew Goode as Captain Sir John Lindsay, the birth father of Dido. After Dido's mother died, he acknowledged his daughter and took her to the Mansfield household, begging his uncle and aunt to take her into their guardianship. He dies while Dido is still young without her having a chance to know him better.
- Alex Jennings as Lord Ashford, a high-ranked judge and Lady Ashford's husband. He hurries Lord Mansfield toward a decision on the Zong case.
- Bethan Mary-James as Mabel, a dark-skinned servant at the Mansfield household. Dido worries that she may be a slave, but Lord Mansfield assures her Mabel is free and being paid a "very respectable" wage.
- James Northcote as Mr. Vaughn, Elizabeth's more gentle suitor.
The 1779 painting, once thought to be by Johann Zoffany, is now attributed to David Martin. The painting hung in Kenwood House until 1922 and now hangs at Scone Palace in Perthshire, Scotland. It was one of the first European portraits to portray a black subject on an equal eye-line with a white aristocrat, though distinctions are implied by the poses, as Elizabeth's "formality and bookishness are contrasted with the wild and exotically turbanned 'natural' figure of Belle."
The painting is replicated in the film with the faces of the actresses portraying the characters replacing those in the original. Dido's finger-to-cheek gesture is absent in the fictionalised version, as is her feathered turban. The original picture is shown on screen at the end of the film.
Filming began on 24 September 2012. The film was shot on location in the Isle of Man, Oxford and London. It is the first major British motion picture to be shot in true-4K, using Sony’s F65 CineAlta digital production camera. The film was produced by DJ Films, Isle of Man Film, and Pinewood Pictures with support from the BFI.
The film is a work of historical fiction, inspired by a painting and the evidence that Dido was brought up at Kenwood House. The relative lack of details about Dido Elizabeth Belle allowed screenwriter Misan Sagay considerable artistic licence in framing the young woman's story, within the broader historical context of the slave economy and the abolition movement.
The only other direct historical reference made about Belle, other than the painting and Thomas Hutchinson's personal diary, appear in Elements of Moral Science, a 1790 work by the Scottish professor of moral philosophy James Beattie, who met Belle and in the book states she recited poetry with "a degree of elegance" equal to any English child of her age, arguing against the then prevailing theory that "negroes are naturally and utterly incapable of distinct articulation".
William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who was Lord Chief Justice of England from 1756 to 1788, presided over two important cases, Somerset v Stewart in 1772 and the Zong insurance claims case in 1783, which helped lay the groundwork for Britain's Slave Trade Act 1807. As in the film, he was the great-uncle of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray.
At the suggestion of the producers, HarperCollins published a companion book "Belle - The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice" by biographer Paula Byrne recounting the lives of the film's principal characters.
Sagay chose to set the major events; Belle's and Elizabeth's love affairs and the Zong case, in the same year the painting was made - when Belle was about 18. In reality, Belle married at 32, long after Lady Elizabeth was married and no longer in touch with Belle. 
John Davinier was in real life a French manservant at Kenwood, not an English apprentice lawyer.
James Walvin OBE, professor emeritus of the University of York, said of Belle: "Much of the historical evidence is there – though festooned in the film with imaginary relishes and fictional tricks. Partly accurate, the whole thing reminded me of the classic Morecambe and Wise sketch with Andre Previn (Eric bashing away on the piano): all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order." Reviewing the film for History Extra, the official website of BBC History Magazine, Walvin noted that while the second half of the film centres on Dido Elizabeth Belle's involvement in the Zong case, in reality she was "nowhere to be found in the Zong affair". In the film "Tom Wilkinson’s Mansfield finds his cold legal commercial heart softened, and edged towards abolition by the eyelash-fluttering efforts of his stunning great niece" and his "adjudication becomes, not a point of law, but the first bold assertion towards the end of slavery". Walvin points out that "he merely stated that there should be another hearing of the Zong case – this time with evidence not known at the earlier hearing". Walvin awarded the film one star for enjoyment and two for historical accuracy.
Some press coverage ahead of filming cited Amma Asante as the sole writer of Belle as well as director. Press releases that followed Fox Searchlight's acquisition of the film gave the final credit determined by the Writers Guild of America, West as "Written by Misan Sagay". Baz Bamigboye of The Daily Mail wrote that cast members Tom Wilkinson and Penelope Wilton had expressed "incredulity" at the accreditation decision, because Wilkinson and Wilton had "only seen and worked from a script written by Amma", whose writing and direction of her debut film won her the Carl Foreman award at the BAFTAs in 2005. The article reported that Asante had been hired to re-draft an original screenplay written by Misan Sagay, after Sagay left the project due to serious ill-health. The subsequent arbitration process undertaken by the Writers Guild of America determined that Sagay provided the bulk of content used in the script, so Sagay was awarded sole writing credit. Producer Damian Jones confirmed, "There was a WGA arbitration. The WGA made its decision on writing credits. And the production respects and abides by their decision." Asante appealed but lost.
In July 2013, it was announced that Fox Searchlight Pictures had acquired distribution rights for the film in the UK and USA. Belle premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on 8 September 2013. The film was released on 2 May 2014 in the United States, 9 May in Canada and 13 June 2014 in the United Kingdom.
The film received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a "Certified Fresh" score of 83% based on reviews from 127 critics, with an average rating of 7/10. The site's consensus states, "It boasts all the surface beauty that fans of period pictures have come to expect, but Belle also benefits from its stirring performances and subtle social consciousness." Critic Mark Kermode named it his fourth-favourite film of 2014.
|Award||Date of ceremony||Category||Recipients and nominees||Result|
|African-American Film Critics Association||8 December 2014||Best Actress||Gugu Mbatha-Raw||Won|
|Black Reel Awards||19 February 2015||Best Actress||Gugu Mbatha-Raw||Won|
|Best Director||Amma Asante||Nominated|
|Best Ensemble||Toby Whale||Nominated|
|Best Screenplay||Misan Sagay||Nominated|
|British Independent Film Awards||7 December 2014||Best Actress in a British Independent Film||Gugu Mbatha-Raw||Won|
|Best Newcomer||Gugu Mbatha-Raw||Nominated|
|Chicago Film Critics Association||15 December 2014||Most Promising Performer||Gugu Mbatha-Raw||Nominated|
|Empire Awards||29 March 2015||Best Female Newcomer||Gugu Mbatha-Raw||Nominated|
|London Film Critics' Circle||18 January 2015||British Actress of the Year||Gugu Mbatha-Raw||Nominated|
|Miami International Film Festival||15 March 2014||SIGNIS Award||Belle||Won|
|NAACP Image Award||6 February 2015||Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture||Gugu Mbatha-Raw||Nominated|
|Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture||Amma Asante||Nominated|
|Outstanding Independent Motion Picture||Belle||Won|
|Outstanding Motion Picture||Belle||Nominated|
|Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture||Misan Sagay||Won|
|Palm Springs International Film Festival||3–13 January 2014||Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature||Belle||Nominated|
|Directors to Watch||Amma Asante||Won|
|Satellite Award||15 February 2015||Best Actress in a Motion Picture||Gugu Mbatha-Raw||Nominated|
|Best Costume Design||Anushia Nieradzik||Nominated|
|Women Film Critics Circle||16 December 2014||Best Female Images in a Movie||Belle||Nominated|
|Best Movie by a Woman||Amma Asante||Nominated|
|Best Woman Storyteller||Misan Sagay||Nominated|
|Karen Morley Award||Belle||Won|
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