Belle

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Word PressI really wanted to see this when it was on at the pictures, but I ran out of time and had to wait for it to be shown on Sky!

Dido Elizabeth Belle was a real person, the daughter of a British aristocrat and an African slave, brought up in the household of her great uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray.  There’s a painting of the two young women together, very unusual by the standards of the 18th century in that it shows a white woman and a black woman as near-equals.  However, not that much is known about Dido’s life, giving the scriptwriters considerable freedom to explore various themes – within the framework of such facts as are known.

One significant theme of the film is the famous “Zong” case, in which a slave-trading syndicate made an insurance claim for the loss of slaves whom they’d thrown overboard: the syndicate claimed that they’d had to kill some of the slaves in order to save others, due to shortages of supplies, but other evidence showed that, in addition to the crew having made significant navigational errors, the terrible conditions on board the ship meant that many of the slaves had become ill and were likely to die anyway, and that they’d been killed in order to facilitate a claim for damages.  The case was heard by the Earl of Mansfield, then the Lord Chief Justice.  He found against the syndicate owners.  The film suggests that Dido and her future husband may have influenced his feelings on the subject.  We can’t know whether or not that was true, but I thought that the way in which it was presented was very well done, and without ever making the mistake of showing 18th century characters looking at things through 21st century eyes.

There was so much else to the film, as well.  The behaviour of a father who might well have abandoned his illegitimate mixed-race child (her mother had died), or hidden her away somewhere, but who wanted her brought up within his aristocratic family, and who left her his money.  The lives of upper-class women in general, born to great privilege but with very few options in life.  And the difficulties faced by anyone, in any time, who doesn’t fit into one of society’s neat little boxes.

Some of the dialogue was stilted: it sounded as if someone’d frantically re-read all Jane Austen’s books and tried to make their character sound like hers, and it didn’t really work because it didn’t sound natural.  However, nothing’s perfect!   A very creditable attempt to explore some very interesting themes.

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