A picture paints a thousand words : Belle (Amma Asante – 2013)

The story behind Amma Asante’s film Belle, which premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, is inspired by a painting attributed to German artist Johann Zoffany that currently hangs in Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland. It depicts two young women, one of whom is black and the other white. The former is Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed race daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman, and Captain Sir John Lindsay, an officer in the British Navy. The latter is Lady Elizabeth Murray, daughter to the 2nd Earl of Mansfield. The two women are cousins. How did they come to be pictured together? Even at a first glance, the image poses a number of questions.

Is Belle bringing a serving of grapes and other fruit to her white cousin? Is her gesture a knowing expression of coyness or is she drawing attention to the colour of her skin? Why does she have only one string of pearls around her neck and Elizabeth have two? Is Elizabeth affectionately touching her cousin or is she keeping her at arms length, even guiding her away? Are they both able to read? Speculative questions will only go so far, but the painting certainly is intriguingly ambiguous. The film provides some answers as to the story behind the image of these two beautiful women.

We begin many years earlier with a gift from a father to his young daughter. A simple act of kindness, yet one whose repercussions will be felt throughout the film. Belle, wide-eyed and wary, but not necessarily afraid, is alone in a room above a bustling English sea port. A white man in uniform, her father (Matthew Goode), enters and unwraps a piece of chocolate which he offers to her. The loving, gentle and heartfelt words that accompany this gift will be one of the few memories that Belle (or Dido as she comes to be known) will retain of her father.

Determined to give her the life that her birthright merits as the daughter of a Lindsay, he takes her to Kenwood House, Hampstead, where he implores his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), to bring her up in his stead on dry land. “What is right can never be impossible”, he defiantly affirms, despite his aunt (Emily Watson) and uncle’s instinctive protestations. An echo of these words will be heard later in the film when an adult Dido tells her adoptive father that, “You break every rule when it matters enough.” Luckily, it would seem that the apple did not fall too far from the tree. Mansfield, significantly, is also Lord Chief Justice and therefore holds a position of considerable influence in the making of laws.

Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon)

Already under their guardianship is Elizabeth, whose mother has died and whose errant father lives abroad with little regard for a daughter he has disinherited. It is so that Dido and ‘Bete’ come to live together – more as sisters than cousins. They are granted equal privileges in terms of education, quality of life and see no difference in one other.

The formalities of 18th century high society, however, were far from accepting and dictate that a number of rules are imposed upon Belle’s existence. She dines neither with her family, nor with the servants. Her family rank means that she is above the servants, although she shares their dark skin, but her skin colour means it is not “correct” for her to eat with her family when they have company. So where does she belong? A struggle that becomes more acute as she approaches adulthood, and courtship.

Mbatha-Raw excels as Dido. The conflict her character suffers is as much internal as external and her performance portrays the confusion, anger and frustration of an individual trying to the find her place in an incomprehensible world that both accepts and shuns her. She wants to scream but at the same time maintain decorum and the manners she has been taught. Almost impossible.

The second layer of her subjugation, if we are to call it that, is that she is a woman. Young rich ladies, seen as little more than the property of a rich husband and prospective mothers to continue bloodlines, are auctioned off to the highest bidder. eHarmony it was not. And yet Dido does not ‘belong’ here either – her inherited wealth means that she is financially independent but her skin colour would bring shame on any supposedly ‘respectable’ family. Does this mean that she can marry for love? Perhaps.

Philanthropist, visionary and humanist John Davinier (Sam Reid)

Cue John Davinier (Sam Reid), the mere son of a vicar, a liberal, idealistic and defiant young man with high aspirations – not dissimilar to Dido’s principled father or Lord Mansfield in his youth – he takes issue with Dido’s place in the world and so begins a profound love that is continually thwarted by rank, family and societal convention.

Of greater historic significance is the case surrounding the murder of more than1oo slaves aboard the Zong slave ship, over which Lord Mansfield presides. With drinking water dwindling, the crew of the ship threw much of their “cargo” overboard, rather than stop to replenish their supplies. Each human life on the ship was insured and claiming for each piece of cargo lost at sea was worth more to them monetarily than arriving with diseased slaves. A great weight of expectation weighs upon the shoulders of Lord Justice Mansfield, whose ruling could change the course of slavery, but he will not be moved by public opinion or pressure – “Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall.” Wilkinson’s performance, as you would expect, is tremendous. He brings a fervour, wisdom and gentleness to a great man on whom so much depended.

Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield, alongside his niece, Dido.

Belle is a magnificent film that handles its subject matter with respect. The script, by Misan Sagay, is extremely well written, is concise and keeps a good pace and the impressive ensemble cast, including Penelope Wilton, Miranda Richardson, Tom Felton and James Norton, is faultless.

Whilst some might say that it rather pulls its punches given the subject matter, making a film which is ostensibly about slavery and racial conflict and being able to maintain a PG rating opens it up to a wider audience. I cannot see that as anything but a positive.

I began this review with a contemplation of a famous painting. Images are shown throughout Belle of white and black figures within the same frame on canvas. Invariably, the diminutive black subject looks up to the white subject with a look of admiration, as this was the accepted norm. Very few were brave enough to fight this subservience. And whilst Belle and Bete may not have always seen eye-to-eye in life, as is only natural with sisters of a similar age, their eye-line is level in their painting. Just as they saw each other as equals in life, so they will be preserved as equals forever in art. Perhaps that is its greatest significance. It marked a change and a step in the right direction.