Magazine article Variety

'Belle' Rings Chimes of Freedom

Magazine article Variety

'Belle' Rings Chimes of Freedom

Article excerpt

'Belle' Rings Chimes of Freedom

Incongruous as it may seem, the pleasures of Jane Austen and the horrors of the British slave trade make a surprisingly elegant and emotionally satisfying fit in "Belle," director Amma Asante's biographical drama about how an exceedingly rare member of 18th-century high society, a woman of mixed English and African ancestry, did her part to push the empire one step closer to abolition. On one level a classically Hollywood tale of white aristocrats deigning to help end black suffering, this handsome period piece nonetheless tells a continually fascinating, unusually layered story located at the juncture of three different lines of oppression (race, class, gender), and grounded by a protagonist with one hell of an identity crisis. Slated for a March release by Fox Searchlight, clearly the slavery-conscious distributor of the moment with this and the much harder-hitting "12 Years a Slave" on its docket, "Belle" should have a ball with arthouse audiences, and boasts strong crossover potential.

The relative absence of known facts about Dido Elizabeth Belle gave screenwriter Misan Sagay ("Their Eyes Were Watching God") considerable artistic license in framing the young woman's story within the broader historical context of a slave-centered economy slowly entering its death throes. It is 1769 when young Dido (Lauren JulienBox), the illegitimate daughter of Capt. Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and an African slave, is sent to live with her aristocratic great-uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the highest chief justice in the land. Lindsay, who loves his daughter and has embraced her without shame, pleads with his relatives to look after her while he returns to his Royal Navy service.

To live under the Mansfields' roof is Dido's birthright, and her relatives grudgingly accept her as a member of the family, bestowing on her a strict, demanding kind of love governed by stiff formalities. Yet the girl's existence is hardly joyless: Dido (played for most of the film by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her half-cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), are as close as sisters, Elizabeth having also been left in the Mansfields' care since childhood.

The crowdpleasing Austen elements here are unmistakable, from Lady Mansfield's fussy determination to ensure that both her girls are adequately provided for, to the Elizabeth-and-Darcy tension that develops between Dido and John Davinier (Sam Reid), Lord Mansfield's handsome, outspoken legal apprentice. …

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