The producers of this BBC lookalike have allowed director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay to take a famous 1772 English lawsuit involving slavery and an unusual portrait of two young women and fashion them into a lavish historical contrivance featuring the illegitimate grandniece of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and Chief Justice of King’s Bench, the equivalent of our Supreme Court.
When Lord Mansfield’s nephew, (a captain in the Royal Navy) died leaving an illegitimate daughter named Dido Elizabeth Belle to be cared for, Mansfield decided to raise the young woman alongside his own granddaughter Elizabeth. A portrait of these two young women, probably painted when they were in their late teens, served as the basis of this imaginative tale on what their lives must have been like in the race and class-conscious society of late 18th century England.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a 31-year-old actress with considerable experience in British television, portrays Dido with a sweet innocence well suited to the idealistic young suitor who presses his case for her hand. Dido and her beau supposedly affect Mansfield’s thinking as he prepares to deliver his verdict in Somerset v. Stewart, in which the Chief Justice outlined the case against slavery. While the historical record suggests that Belle plays fast and loose with the facts in order to develop necessary dramatic tension for the film, the end result is a pleasant enough costume epic of the type at which British filmmakers excel. Since Ms. Mbatha-Raw is joined in the movie’s accomplished cast that includes Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson & Miranda Richardson, the young lead has little to do but reflect an earnest, innocent attractiveness which she does quite admirably.
Veteran costume designer Anushia Nieradzik captures the era’s penchant for elaborate clothing while set decorator Tina Jones (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, The BourneUltimatum) handsomely recreates England circa 1750-75. The components add up to an entertaining, if rather inconsequential film.
The Verdict? A glossy tour England’s upper classes in an era of opulence and rigid social structure. Despite an earnest effort to be sociologically relevant to 21st century audiences, this one settles for entertainment over enlightenment.
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