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  • Belle
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Belle is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of Admiral John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman.

As a child she was sent to live with her father's uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who raised her as a free young gentlewoman at Kenwood House. That same Lord Mansfield, in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice, was later called on to rule in the case of the Zong Massacre, a controversial court case that followed the deaths of approximately 142 enslaved Africans on board the slave ship Zong in 1781. The owners of the ship went on to make a claim to their insurers for the loss of the slaves, one that was refused on claims that the slaves (many of which were diseased) were deliberately murdered after being deemed worth more dead than alive.

This is the backdrop of Dido's story, one that provides the film's climax and is very much linked to her journey to find a place in the world. As such, there are two main (though interconnected) threads running throughout the film: that of Gugu Mabatha-Raw's eponymous Dido Belle negotiating high society, and the court proceedings surrounding Lord Mansfield's ruling on the Zong trial.

Toward the end of the film the focus is just as much on Lord Mansfield's moral crisis regarding the Zong Massacre as it is on Dido's awareness of her quasi-privilege and growing sense of identity. But the greater part of the film remains with Dido, her love story with her uncle's student John Davinier, her relationship with her cousin Elizabeth, and her struggle to find a place in society.

Since the film was inspired by the 1779 portrait of Dido and Elizabeth, they are very much the focal point of the movie. I went out in search of the portrait on-line just to get a better look, and it is quite a striking picture, with the composed and seated Elizabeth contrasted with the more spritely and active-looking Dido. According to art studies, the fact that Elizabeth's hand rests upon Dido's waist is a suggestion of affection and equality (rather than a depiction of her being pushed away, as it appears at first sight).

Gugu Mabatha-Raw's is a lovely actress, and throughout the course of the film she captures Dido's confusion, yearning, sadness and humanity in negotiating a world that doesn't necessarily reject her, but doesn't really have a place for her either. You're never entirely sure how she's going to react to any given situation, for though she's perfectly comfortable giving orders to a multitude of white servants, she is rendered awkward and speechless when coming face-to-face with a black woman who works in the family's London abode.

Tom Wilkinson steps up to second base as Lord Mansfield, and gives a very dignified, low-key performance as an aging man whose fires are gradually being extinguished, weary with the state of the world and yet whose love for Dido is something that causes him pain and joy in equal measure. Ultimately his court ruling is framed as him choosing to do right by her as well as following his own conscience, and their held gaze after the verdict is probably the most heart-rending part of the film.

Sarah Gadon balances Elizabeth's sweet nature with a certain amount of ditziness without going overboard in either direction, and Miranda Richardson, Emily Waston and Penelope Wilson all have supporting roles. They're old pros, but they know the film belongs to Gugu and don't try to steal her spotlight, though Watson and Wilson are each given an effecting scene in which the former appeals to her husband on the Zong Massacre ruling, and the latter recalls a lost love from her youth. It appears that Tom Felton is well and truly typecast as the upper-class jerk, but hey - it's not like he's not good at the role, and there's a moment in which where he comes across as truly frightening, above and beyond anything Draco Malfoy was capable of.

And for anyone who just loves Jane Austen-esque period films, there's an abundance of beautiful costumes, set-design and locations to provide the requisite eye candy. It's a beautiful-looking movie, and well worth the watch.
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on June 29, 2014
Even if some of the details are changed for the sake of the drama, and others made up for lack of information, this is how the story (based on real people and events) should have happened. Other reviewers have compared Belle to Jane Austen films, but it resembles them only in the flawless portrayal of social class and manners of the period. None of Austen's novels, however, hinge on greater events than the lives and affairs of the main characters; whereas Belle's life and identity are shown as closely bound to the fate of slavery and British attitudes to it.
All of the performances are excellent, with nobody over-acting or stealing scenes. The performance of the lead is especially moving. The costumes and sets are appropriately lush, and the cinematography unobtrusively draws you into the story. One very minor historical detail (since otherwise I'd have nothing to criticize): Belle's suitor, Ashford, tells her that his father has purchased a captain's commission in the navy for him. British navy commissions (unlike army commissions) were not sold. A British army officer could depend on soldiers being drilled in highly standardized procedures enforced by the noncoms. A British naval officer had to be competent in all the complex details of handling a sailing ship. So the only way to become one was to serve as a midshipman for years, then pass the very rigorous oral examination for lieutenant given by a panel of veteran naval captains.
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on December 25, 2014
Biracial racism. When I speak Spanish people are surprised. My Latino friends tell me I look "white". Yet I have even been the butt of racist comments from the white family into which I married. With time I found they really were an ignorant bunch. Knowledge is power and this movie offers an opportunity to learn about racism at a pivotal point in history through the eyes of a mulatto girl.

The central problem is a law allowing merchant ships to dispose of cargo if it is necessary for the crew's survival. The lost cargo is then expected to be covered by insurance. What if the "cargo" is human? What if the judge trying such a case for fraud has a daughter who could have been this very same cargo but for her social position?

"Mulatto" was a word spoken in whispers when I was little. It means a child born of black and white parents. As a mulatto child, Belle lives a high life because of her family and personal fortune yet she is restricted in society. Her family is put in the precarious position of wanting her to live life realistically while not wanting her demeaned in any way. They provide a protected environment until she begins to question their values and seeks information for herself regarding the treatment of African slaves. A perfect time to quote, "But for the grace of God go I".

Love has no color. These historical figures proved this long ago when they commissioned a painting of a portrait with Belle and her cousin with whom she grew up. It is still displayed in one of Belle's family's castles. It was the inspiration for this movie. Now it has become my inspiration.
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on June 22, 2014
Directed by Amma Asante (A Way of Life) from a screenplay by Misan Sagay, Belle is a beautifully rendered historical romance, reminiscent of many Jane Austen romances of the period. The performances are first class, the cinematography and costumes are lush and detailed, the flow of the story well-paced and balanced between its romantic and historical elements, and the music adds wonderfully to the feel of the film. But that said, this is a film that should be considered more of an imaginative - and highly embellished - story than an accurate recounting of actual historical events.

The film begins with a young British naval officer, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), in Jamaica, apparently meeting a very young girl for the first time: his mixed-race daughter by an African woman with whom he'd had an affair. In short order he tells the girl that he's taking her to "the life you were born to have", which we quickly learn means taking her to England to be raised by his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), high-ranking members of the British aristocracy who have no children of their own but who are already raising another grand-niece of similar age named Elizabeth. The Mansfield's take the girl - whose full name is Dido Elizabeth Belle - into their home, opting to call her Dido since they already have an Elizabeth, raising the two cousins almost as if they were sisters. Almost, but not quite, as becomes apparent in the film that having a mixed-race member of the family presented certain social difficulties in Georgian English aristocratic society.

Time passes quickly and soon the girls are young women, coming of an age where they were expected to make their entry into society, the first step in fulfilling the role for women of the time: arranging for a suitable marriage to be made. Despite their status of being wards of the highly respected Lord Mansfield - who was also a judge in the highest court in the land, both women face certain challenges. For Dido (a superb Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the challenges are all too obvious - an illegitimate mixed-race woman hardly made for a suitable, let alone respectable, match in a society where purity of breeding was nearly an obsession. For Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) the challenge was less controversial but no less daunting - having only a pittance of a dowry and no claim to lands or incomes, at a time when a woman's prospects for a suitable marriage were in direct proportion to the amount of wealth she brought with her.

Dido has long been aware of her unusual status within the Mansfield household - too high to eat with the servants but not high enough to eat with any guests the Mansfields might have. Her entry into British society only accentuates the differences between her and everyone else. As one prospective match observes, "One does not make a wife of the exotic." However in a turn of irony, Dido's prospects for marriage are actually higher than Elizabeth's because Dido's father left her an inheritance and an income, and she quickly learns that some gentlemen's need for money can overcome their qualms about her skin and racial heritage. But at least one young man - John Davinier (Sam Reid), a vicar's son aspiring to be a lawyer - sees Dido for her other qualities, including her intelligence and beauty. And it is from him that she learns of Lord Mansfield's upcoming role as judge in a highly followed court case resulting from the drowning of 142 slaves - men, women and children - by the captain and crew of the slave ship Zong, all news of which had been kept carefully away from her. All of these things cause Dido to start questioning the state of the society in which she finds herself, and what her role in that society should be.

The historical elements that underpin the story are centered around two things. The first is a famous 1779 painting, the first of its kind, showing Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray portrayed as equals at a time when black or mulatto images in art were always portrayed as lesser and largely ornamental figures in art. The second was the infamous Zong Massacre of 1781 and the subsequent court decision of 1783 that dealt with the legal issues resulting from it. Beyond that though, most of the events of the film amount to fiction, with the writers pretty much making up most of the details where nothing is actually known and then changing others that were known just to fit the story's narrative.

Highly recommended as a romantic and period film that highlights the social and legal issues of the time, with the caution that it should not be taken as actual history.
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on June 30, 2014
I am 100-percent in love with this movie. I made a rare trip to the movies to see Belle twice, and I'm so excited the movie is coming to blu-ray. Belle's story was a beautiful mix of fact and fiction, elegantly brought to the big screen by the stunning lead actress and a host of talented actors and actresses.
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on September 5, 2014
I loved the film; I won't even both to review my thoughts on it since so many others here have done so. My 4 star rating SHOULD have been 5...except for the fact that THIS VIDEO IS ONLY ON BLU-RAY, WHAT THE HECK????!!!

Seriously, what?

I complained to Amazon once I found out and apparently the studio is the one who released it this way, so they have no choice over it...oh, but wait a tick...if you go onto Netflix, (it will release on the U.S. Netflix 9/23/14) it says it has both formats...so what's the problem here, Amazon? I'm actually considering 'losing' the standard copy I receive through Netflix just so I can own it. Which is ludicrous. I don't want it on Blu-Ray, I have a highly sophisticated Bose system which has a standard DVD player and it performs amazingly well, and I have no intention of buying a whole other player just for this movie, no matter how much I love it. And I don't want it on Amazon Instant video, because I'd like to watch it on my nice, big screen tv, attached to my nice, pricey Bose system. So...yeah, get it together Amazon, and hound the studio to carry out a regularly formatted DVD. The world does not revolve around instant video and Blu-Ray.
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on September 14, 2014
I stumbled upon "Belle" entirely by accident. It was a "sponsored" item on Facebook and caught my eye because of the "period setting" of the Bluray cover. I am a big fan of Jane Austen and British period drama so I was immediately drawn to it. After checking the trailer on Youtube and reading the reviews on Amazon and IMDB, I purchased the bluray sight unseen. I am very happy that I did.

The story is inspired by the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Elizabeth Murray. The portrait is currently housed in the Earl of Mansfield's seat in Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland, and was formerly attributed to artist Johann Zofanny. It begins with Captain Sir John Lindsay becoming acquainted with his daughter Dido, his illegitimate child with a former African slave Belle who has died. Capt. Lindsay takes Dido and places her in the care of his uncle, the Lord Chief Justice and Earl of Mansfield, and his wife Elizabeth. Lord and Lady Mansfield have no children and already have their young niece Elizabeth in their care. Elizabeth is the daughter of their nephew and heir David Murray, although she was left to their care by her father after he remarried.

Dido and Elizabeth are raised together and become inseparable companions. They are both educated, accomplished and spirited young women (the latter much to the chagrin of their grand-aunt Mary). They are then thrown into the company and attentions of eligible young men, most notably James and Oliver Ashford. Their mother Lady Ashford sanctions the match for James and Elizabeth, assuming that Elizabeth is heiress to the Mansfield estate. In truth it is Dido who is the heiress while Elizabeth is a relative pauper, having been abandoned by her father. Younger brother Oliver forms an attraction to Dido. Another young man, John Davinier, is introduced into the Mansfield household as a protege of Lord Mansfield. John, the vicar's son, is an ambitious, intelligent but impoverished young man who wishes to make law his profession. Lord Mansfield is set to rule over a legal case that is in the forefront of London society at that time - the Zong case (aka Gregson vs Gilbert), which involves the death of slaves on a ship bound from Africa, in which Lord Mansfield is the judge. As Lord Mansfield takes him under his wing, John becomes involved in the case. Dido develops an interest in the case and she and John form a friendship. As Dido and Elizabeth embark on a trip to London for the season, Lord Mansfield prepares for the one of the most controversial cases of his time. Love inevitably follows them there as both young women discover that the path to love and marriage is often full of complications.

While this film includes all the necessary ingredients to make it a topnotch period drama - a brilliant cast, beautiful locations, sumptuous costumes, fine acting and high production values - what makes it stand out to me is how it is told from a very different point-of-view. Instead of one of our fine Jane Austen-esque or Dickensian heroines, we have a young, strong-willed and intelligent bi-racial heroine. Dido faces the same challenges as other young ladies at the time in terms of social mores and customs as well as the inevitable necessity (at that time) of finding a suitable match. But her challenges are exacerbated because of the color of skin, as certain restrictions are placed on her and some in her society deem her "unsuitable" as a wife. Those that do find her suitable raise suspicion as to whether they love her for herself or for her wealth.

The storyline is one of the main reasons why I love this film. It is well told, inspiring and engaging. The other is the wonderful cast. English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the perfect Dido. She is lovely and with such a bright spark that makes her entirely convincing as the intelligent, engaging and strong (yet in a feminine and understated way) heroine. Much like "Pride & Prejudice's" Elizabeth Bennet or "North & South's" Margaret Hale, her Dido is no shrinking violet. Sarah Gadon is charming and often funny as Dido's vivacious and lovestruck cousin Elizabeth (Bette). She is the yin to Dido's yang. The young ladies could not be more different and yet they share a bond and friendship as sisters would. One of my favorites, however, is Sam Reid who plays the idealistic, intelligent, ambitious John Davinier. John is no mere cipher. Sam infuses such passion, personality and charisma in his role that he commands the screen even as he goes up against Tom Wilkinson's formidable Lord Mansfield. Tom Wilkinson is always brilliant in whatever he does, and his Lord Mansfield is convincing as both the imperious Lord Chief Justice and the protective and gentle "Papa" to Dido and Bette. He truly feels that weight of his burden - knowing that he is about to make a decision over a case that could change the face of slavery in England. And even with this burden, he knows that he also has a family life and the well being of his young nieces to consider. Emily Watson plays Lady Mansfield, who balances her motherly responsibilities to her nieces and is the rock and support for her husband. Penelope Wilton plays Lady Mary Murray (sister of Lord Mansfield) who has never married and takes charge of the Mansfield estate. Miranda Richardson is Lady Ashford, James and Oliver's mother, whose main objective is to seek eligible (i.e. wealthy) wives for her two eligible sons. Alex Jennings plays her husband Lord Ashford, colleague of Lord Mansfield. Harry Potter's Tom Felton is James, who initially pursues Elizabeth, as the Ashford's assume that she is an heiress. James detests Dido while his brother Oliver (James Norton) feels otherwise. Matthew Goode has a small role as Dido's father, Captain Sir John Lindsay.

Credit to the strong screenplay, Amma Assante's directing and the talents of these actors that every one of the characters has a personality that jumps off the screen. Even the maid Mabel and the carriage driver Wimbridge are memorable. And may I say that I love the chemistry between the two leads? You have all seen the trailer so it will not be a spoiler when I say that the electricity when Dido and John are onscreen is palpable. Within the first few minutes of the movie, I knew I made the right choice in purchasing this film. It is engaging from beginning to end and I have to admit I watched and re-watched this many times since. I wish this movie was longer because I did not want Dido's story to end. If you enjoy period dramas such as Pride & Prejudice, BBC's North & South and Downton Abbey, then I highly recommend this movie. It has become one of my favorites in my British period drama collection and I hope this encourages others to see this film and take that chance as I have. I am so glad that I did.
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on August 11, 2014
This was my favorite movie this year, but it's not being produced on a DVD! I called 20th Century Fox, and they told me they were only releasing it on Blu-ray for now. Since I have no desire to spend money on buying a blu-ray player, that means I'll have to buy a copy on a secondary market. I told them this would be a loss for them (I figured they would understand the meaning of money). If you are also unhappy that this is not available on DVD, please call 1-888-223-4369 and leave a complaint. Thanks!
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on August 16, 2014
Excellent movie. I don't mind about the historical inaccuracies or embellishments. The movie is entertainment first and foremost, not a documentary. The acting is well done and holds up to any of my favorite period movies in style and visual appeal.
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on August 31, 2014
This film was exceedingly well made. The story is absolutely fascinating. How did society handle the rank of an illegitimate child of mixed lineage, particularly when that lineage was evident in her features? To make matters even more complicated, the child is a girl who, when older, will be in need of protection and provision long after her guardians have passed. The obvious solution of the time was to marry well - but how could a child of her background marry well during such a time of rank prejudice? This film delves into the proposed issue and provides a most hopeful and intricate solution. I enjoyed every bit of the journey.

Matthew Goode's performance - though very brief at the beginning of the film - was very moving, and set the stage for how Dido would be treated by her other relatives. The story took several twists and turns that I had not expected as I watched it unfold but it left the audience with a very satisfying ending. Strong performances all around, particularly by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tom Wilkinson. I highly recommend this film and will be purchasing the DVD when it becomes available.
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