Belle @ The Ross

Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)

Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)

We all have found ourselves in the most insufferable circumstances wherein we hope against all hope that the fates will take pity on us mere mortals and make the way for an escape. We also have been in situations where we were made to feel unwelcomed, and thus we develop a yearning to belong. British film director Amma Asante’s Belle is a film inspired by the 1779 oil portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray. The portrait hangs at the Earl of Manchester’s ancestral home, Scone Palace in Scotland. Assante imagines the process of escape and belonging or, specifically, the methods a family uses to include a relative in the household all the while restricted by the socio-cultural mores of the time—that time is when the Atlantic slave trade was in full force … in Britain … in the eighteenth century.

The route of the Atlantic Slave Trade

The route of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Dido, played with unsettling restraint by British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is a mulatto whose British father, Sir John Lindsay, (played by Matthew Goode) searches for then rescues her from the possibility of the auction block when Belle’s mother, Maria Belle, an enslaved woman from a plantation in the West Indies, dies.

Sir John sends Belle to live with her great Uncle, William Murray, The Earl of Manchester (played by Tom Wilkinson) and her great Aunt, Lady Murray played by Emily Watson. Dido grows up with her sister/cousin Lady Elizabeth (played by Sarah Gordon), and is indulged with almost every privilege accorded a young woman of English aristocracy. What follows are the usual performances of the strictest notions of gentility and social manners that govern the behavior of the British aristocracy—all elements of a Jane Austen novel; but when race is added to that setting of opulence and grandeur at Kenwood House in Hampstead, London, you can cut the tension with a knife!

18th Century Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray

18th Century Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray

What is lovely about Amma Asante’s characterization of Dido, is not only the young woman’s confidence; also, Asante’s Belle showcases the Belle’s indirect association with Mabel, an African female domestic servant (played by Beth-Ann Mary James), who waits on her when she travels with the family away from Kenwood. These silent interactions via eye contact and smiles suggest Dido Belle never forgets her own heritage even as she swims in the pleasure of affluence.

Belle is a gracious movie and 18th century England is well-attended by its costumes and landscapes. Yet, Amma Asante’s film refrains from an emotional depth; Dido does not ache for her mother, for example. Instead, Asante focuses on the strong cross-currents of change about to occur in England, the country that abolished slavery in 1807.

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Belle plays through June 5 at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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