“Belle”: young love in shadow of the slave trade

“The trade,” referred to in the new English film Belle, set in the latter 1700s, was the slave trade. A historical character at that time, Dido Elizabeth Belle, was the progeny of an African and a British sea captain. The sea captain drops daughter Belle off at his rich uncle’s, then disappears from the movie. The uncle is William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, then Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. He raises her alongside a white niece. Both were amazing beauties, as proven by their portrait and a very thin historical record, which still exist.

This historical drama takes up Belle’s first encounters with young love, the stratified class system of the times, and two totally disgusting forms of chauvinism. While she and her cousin begin to negotiate the aristocratic process of mate selection, Lord Mansfield is taking up the case of the Zong massacre, in which a shipload of African slaves, chained together, were cast into the sea to drown. Belle, in her subtle aristocratic way, peeps into both processes and takes a stand.

As costume dramas go, this one is better than most. The costumes and settings are exquisite. The fanciful language among aristocrats of the time, while clear enough to modern audiences, carries shades of passion that might have been less effective if spoken outright. The acting is wonderful. We would expect no less, of course, of Tom Wilkinson as the earl, Emily Watson as his spouse, and Miranda Richardson as a scheming mother/matchmaker. But Matthew Goode, as Belle’s lower-class suitor, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role exceed all expectations.

The tension in the movie comes from the developing love story with all its obstacles, and from the impending legal decision affecting the slave trade. It’s a talky movie with little action, but splendid scenes and a story well worth attending.

Movie information:
Directed by Amma Asante

Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson
2013, UK, 104 minutes, PG

Photo: Wikipedia (CC)