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Interesting tale of bi-racial woman raised in gilded cage of racist 18th century English society, but how much of it is true?
on June 1, 2014
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
What exactly do we know historically about Dido Elizabeth Belle, the subject of Amma Asante's new film, set in 18th century England? She was the 'illegitimate' daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and a woman from the West Indies named Maria Belle. Since Lindsay was always away at sea, he ended up leaving Dido with his uncle, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield (who was the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales) and his wife, at his Kenwood House estate, near London. The couple raised Dido, along with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray.
Since people of mixed parentage were considered socially and racially inferior, they were usually relegated to a lower servant status and not permitted to mingle with their upper class employers. What was unusual here is that Mansfield chose to raise Dido as almost part of the family. An American visitor reported that Dido was not allowed to dine with the family (as depicted in the film) but joined the upper class ladies for coffee afterward in the drawing-room. Historically, Dido was responsible for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood but also assisted Lord Mansfield with his correspondence (work that was reserved for a secretary or a clerk). And Dido also had an annual allowance that far exceeded the salary of a domestic servant at the time (Notably cousin Elizabeth's annual stipend was much more than Dido's).
It appears that Dido and Elizabeth had a good relationship. This is borne out by the famous 1779 painting of them that hung at the family estate for many years. In it, we see Dido in a turban and Elizabeth in a more demure dress, placing her hand on Dido's waist. The suggestion that they were equals is further enhanced by the fact that Dido received expensive medical treatments and luxurious bedroom furnishings.
The film however, neatly depicts simmering racism beneath the surface between the two. When Elizabeth, unhappy that she has not found a man, expresses her frustration by taking it all out on her cousin, treating her as a subordinate and someone who should be ashamed of her parentage.
Since little is known about Dido beyond this point, Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay are forced to create their own history to move things along dramatically. Unfortunately, the central plot point, where it's posited that Dido becomes an heiress, and cousin Elizabeth is left with virtually nothing (and hence is no longer of interest amongst the male suitors) doesn't work at all. In reality, there is no record that Sir Lindsay left Dido anything (although he did leave his two other children a small inheritance). Lord Mansfield did leave Dido 500 pounds outright and a 100 pound annuity—nowhere close to the amount suggested in the film.
Thus we have this anachronistic conceit of Oliver Ashford (from an aristocratic family) who offers to marry Dido (in order to get her hands on her inheritance). It is unlikely that someone of that social status would offer to marry a woman of mixed parentage in that day. In the context of the story, it's even more unlikely since the other brother, James, is an out-and-out racist, and the mother, Lady Ashford, a bigot. According to the historical record, Dido did not receive that fantastic inheritance and got less than her cousin from family members. Of course even if she did, I still find it difficult to believe that the lure of the inheritance would take precedence over the social stigma attached to courting someone considered to be of inferior status.
Even if we accept the idea that Oliver would ask for Dido's hand, I didn't believe that Dido would have even entertained the idea of shacking up with him. The way it's depicted, Dido suddenly 'forgets' about how much she hates his brother and also ignores warnings that Oliver is only out for the inheritance. The idea that women during that time were so dependent on men in general and addicted to romance novels, that Dido would have thrown all her common sense out the window, still seems incredible, in the face of her convictions about the anti-slavery movement and women's rights. She knows the family she's dealing with from the get-go, so compromising - by accepting Oliver's proposal - appears completely out of character.
Now as far as Dido's romance with the dashing abolitionist vicar's son, John Davinier, that's another figment of the film's scenarists' imagination. Davinier was not even British in real life—actually a French servant, so again the Asante and screenwriter have cheated us. Still, such a fictional creation works a lot better than the idea of one of the Ashford brothers asking for Dido's hand. There are some nicely acted scenes where Davinier, now cast as an aspiring barrister, goes toe to toe with Mansfield.
Even one of the more fantastic invented 'action' scenes, involving purloined documents related to the infamous 'Zong' case, which Mansfield must rule on, doesn't seem too outlandish in contrast to the whole Dido-Ashford brouhaha. The Zong case figures prominently in the history of anti-slavery efforts and the film provides an excellent service in educating viewers about some of the details.
If you're willing to overlook some of the major plot contrivances, 'Belle' has some good things going for it. Special mention should be made of the music by Rachel Portman. It's a brilliant score that enhances the dialogue and creates a great overall atmosphere. I liked Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido, who ably made her case for racial equality throughout the narrative. Tom Wilkinson steals the show as Lord Mansfield, conflicted over the values of a conservative society on the threshold of change. Finally, 'Belle' succeeds here and there in elucidating the class conflict of 18th Century England. Some of the invented material doesn't work, but overall this is a very attractive film that is worth a look.