This film was not initially on my “looking forward to seeing in 2014” list, but lists are always subject to change and modification. Belle, which premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, is the true story of mixed race Dido Elizabeth Belle, the natural daughter of an 18th century Royal Navy Admiral, and her life as a member of an aristocratic family.
In reading the press notes for the film I was fascinated by how the film got its start. Belle’s writer, Misan Sagay, found inspiration when looking at this Georgian-era portrait of Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth, while visiting Scone Palace at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland:
Although Belle was not named in the guide accompanying the painting (attributed to painter Johann Zoffay), Sagay left determined to find out her identity.
In what can only be described as serendipitous, Sagay discovered that her son’s Godmother was a friend of Lady Mansfield, the 8th removed descendant of the character from the film, and from there the archives were opened, allowing Sagay to unlock the mysteries of the relationship between the two friends knows as “Belle and Bette”.
The film gained a head of steam when producer Damian Jones, who also was familiar with the painting, came across Sagay’s script through a mutual friend.
For director Amma Asante, this film was an opportunity to tell a period story that simultaneously deals with the familiar themes of romantic machinations and the British class system, all within the context of the historical issue of slavery:
“I’ve never seen a film about the Jane Austen elements we know so well – the marriage market, the lives of girls growing up into society ladies, the romantic longing – combined with a story about the end of slavery,” says Asante.
Check out the trailer here:
While the actual story is not be wholly unique, as we are fully aware that interracial relationships and their subsequent offspring occurred (duh), it has not received such a treatment on the big screen.
Equally of interest to me is how racial politics in light of the African slave trade are portrayed outside of the United States of America.
Finally, driving home my enthusiasm for Belle is that the story is told with a decidedly female voice, punctuated by the fact that the director is a woman of the African diaspora (Black British).
The cast features Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Belle), Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton and Miranda Richardson.
Belle will come to American screens on May 2nd.