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'True story’ of class and race in 18th-century England

May. 21, 2014
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One of the pleasures of Jane Austen involves following the protagonist as she navigates a society as regulated as a chessboard. The laws governing inheritance are clearly defined; behavior between the sexes is carefully codified; the rules of conduct between the classes are understood. And yet there can be bold and unexpected coups, especially when the heart intervenes.

Imaginatively drawn from a true story, Belle is Pride and Prejudice with the accent on prejudice. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is fetching as Dido, the 18th-century daughter of a British aristocrat and an African slave. A man of considerably greater responsibility and compassion than most, he brings Dido as a little girl to his family’s country manor. Aunt and uncle are stunned by the apparition of a black girl in their midst, but after a few moments Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) relents in the face of this shy but alert girl; Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) harrumphs but soon grows fond of this bright, observant new addition to the family. For Dido’s pretty blonde cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), her arrival means a playmate her own age, virtually a sister.

Belle has been compared to the art house films of Messrs. Merchant and Ivory, and while director Amma Asante lavishes similar attention on period costumes and furnishings, the tone is closer to golden age Hollywood. Feelings are as assiduously orchestrated as a symphony; Misan Sagay’s screenplay provides the foreshadowing that allows the audience to know where the plot is headed despite erecting believable obstacles in the path of fate.

Dido’s presence inevitably causes an undercurrent of tension. The Mansfield family resolutely maintains her status as their own blood against the unreflecting prejudice of anyone who assumes her inferiority. Vulnerable to aristocratic cads who might pluck this exotic flower for sport, Dido is wealthy by inheritance but has few marriage prospects in a society where a black noblewoman is an anomaly and the matchmaking calculus is based on status as well as wealth. Elizabeth has the status, but—lacking an inheritance—not the wealth. Will there be spats between the “sisters” over their future in a world where women have few rights?

The appearance at the doorstep of the vicar’s son, John Davinier (Sam Reid), is the clue for anyone versed in Austen, and the earnest young man’s habit of launching into speeches about “changing the world” lets everyone else know that he will be Dido’s soul mate after a suitable period of attraction-repulsion. As a product of her time and place, Dido can play the “class card” with a man whose middle-class station is several pegs below the Mansfields’.

And speaking of that family, the historically minded will recognize Lord Mansfield as the chief justice whose landmark ruling struck the first small but resonant blow against slavery in the British Empire. As Belle points out, the slave trade was one of the pillars of British capitalism, a source of the nation’s wealth, and the minions of the dismal science of economics weighed in against those voices that called slavery immoral. A case involving slavery on appeal in Lord Mansfield’s court hovers above Dido’s story, at first like a moth beating furiously against the window glass, later as an overriding theme when the mixed-race woman comes to understand her prospects and the harsh life from which good fortune had saved her. As in an old Hollywood movie, social and political issues provide the material for a heart-swelling, three-cheers romance.


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