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Belle (2013)

In the late 18th century, a British gentleman about to set sail in service of the king turns up at the English country estate of an older relative, the highest judge in the land, to submit unto the latter’s care the former’s illegitimate daughter. Who is the result of a union with a black slave. The young girl, soon a young woman, as well as the racism she has to endure, inspires her surrogate father to pave the way for an end to slavery in the British Empire. It sounds rather fanciful, doesn’t it? But it happens to be true. Or at least plausible, given that very little is known about the actual Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her actual role in the Lord Justice’s ruling is unclear.

Belle wastes little time with setting up the meat of the story. There is only a short prologue showing Dido meeting her biological father and being handed off again; Mansfield, the judge, is irritated at first, but quickly grows to like the girl, as does her white cousin Elizabeth, also a ward of the childless Mansfield’s. Less than ten minutes after the film’s opening moments, a lovely match cut magically grows the two girls into young ladies, who display a naive interest in men even as the social rules for women of their position heavily restrict any contact between the two sexes.

Dido is no Rosa Parks, and Belle no Spartacus (1960). Because the film mainly sticks to the historical record, the main character can’t be a great public leader in the abolitionist movement, as maybe she would have been were she and the movie’s premise entirely fictional. The slavery question is part of the film, but more on the margins. What’s in the centre instead is a Jane-Austen-y story about good matches and courtships and engagements or almost-engagements and pining for, or being wooed by, the wrong man. The photography is lush, the costumes lovely to look at (if maybe less conservative cleavage-wise than they would have been in reality, was my initial reaction, but maybe that was wrong of me), the music (by Rachel Portman, familiar with period pieces and romances) beautiful and the language charmingly old-fashioned. The romantic portion of the film, in short, is pretty, if conventional. Continue reading

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