I mentioned earlier that some of my tutoring students are doing a unit on the history of migrant and minority communities in Britain. As part of that, they watched this film: a biopic about the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of a Royal Navy officer and a West Indian woman named Maria Belle (or Bell). Raised by relatives in England, Dido Belle had a pretty unusual life for a mixed-race woman of the time. We don’t know every detail, but she seemed to live with the family — and her uncle was the Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice, so a pretty high-ranking family — on conditions of some (although perhaps not total?) equality.
The film fictionalises the story (since, as I said, we don’t know as much as we might about Dido Belle’s life) and focuses on a couple of things: the legal battles concerning slavery in 18th-century England and Dido’s romance with serious-looking legal student John Davinier. She did in fact marry a John Davinier, but I don’t think this guy has much in common with him.
So it’s clearly going for a sort of Austen-movie style, with young ladies worrying about finding suitable husbands and who’s got £2,000 a year, and might the stern son of a local clergyman have feelings for our heroine? The romance, of course, ties in to both Belle’s race and the issue of social class — the challenge set up by the film is that Dido is from an aristocratic family, and therefore shouldn’t marry beneath herself, but because she’s mixed-race British people of the correct social class won’t be interested. Unless, that is, they are handsome fortune-hunters being pressured by Miranda Richardson to do it.
The legal plot focuses on the Zong case, which was a court battle relating to insurance payments on slaves killed by the crew of a slave ship. Mansfield’s decision is seen as a stepping-stone toward the abolition of slavery, and it plays a big role in the film, but the question of romance (with an abolitionist) is definitely foremost. Which is fair enough; I am not a legal historian, but I am given to understand that a) Belle wasn’t particularly involved in the Zong case — that’s just something Mansfield’s critics said as a jab — and b) the idea that Mansfield was moving toward abolition in that case is probably an overstatement. Publicity surrounding the case did stimulate anti-slavery activism, though, and it was seen as important that Mansfield had ruled against the slavers, who were an important economic pressure group.
Mansfield’s summation in the Zong case in the film is actually taken from another important anti-slavery case, the Somersett case, in which he famously said that slavery was “odious” and “incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political,” but it glosses over the more complex context of what he was actually saying — that slavery couldn’t be supported by common law but only by “positive law.” This was the decision that established that slavery was illegal in England and Wales, and is usually given as more persuasive evidence of Mansfield’s anti-slavery position than the Zong case.
It looks good, it’s well-shot and it has a lot of good people in it: Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is good in the title role. But the dialogue is … well, it could be better; it sounds stiff, and not quite authentic. Some of the exposition is pretty obvious. And it is a little slower than it might be. Perhaps a lot slower in places. That would be fine if the slowness came from character-illuminating digressions or scenes that were genuinely funny or exciting by themselves. But a lot of them are just slow expository scenes in which very good actors explain things to each other in a stately, dignified way.
So as a drama it isn’t completely successful, and as a period piece it has to be treated with caution, simply because we know so little about its very compelling subject. But it’s an interesting piece, and especially good, I thought, in its portrayal of the hurtful racism of people who weren’t trying to be hurtful racists — indeed, who were being as much of the opposite as practicality would allow. Social norms are a hell of a thing, and even people genuinely trying to be kind and caring can use them to hurt others, which is something that often gets overlooked in films about prejudice in historical periods. It’s a shame, then, that much of the rest of the film is kind of … rote.
A note about the painting: one of the subplots is about the famous painting of Dido and her cousin, once thought to be by Zoffany (who I only really know from Gilbert and Sullivan) but now attributed to an unnamed painter.
In the film, the painting is portrayed as a statement of the characters’ equality — the two women are on the same eyeline, which is something art historians have pointed out about it. But there are also a lot of signs of racial difference in the image — the seated, reading white woman and the almost impish black woman carrying the platter of fruit representing a distinction between culture and nature that was often given a racial edge in the art of the era.