Historian at the Movies: Belle reviewed

As part of our Historian at the Movies series, James Walvin OBE, professor emeritus of the University of York, reviews Belle, a true story film about Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and an African slave woman.

**Please be aware that this review contains spoilers**

Gugu Mbatha-Raw - MovieStillsDB.com/DJ Films/Isle of Man Film/Pinewood Pictures

Q: Did you enjoy the film?

A: I ought to have enjoyed this film, but watched it, twice, with mounting dissatisfaction.

Belle hit the screens in the UK on 13 June amid a massive publicity campaign. The main star’s face (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) adorned the London underground, ads festooned the newspapers, and the media in general fell over themselves to provide free, and largely adulatory publicity.

Here, it seemed, is a film for our times. It is the story of slavery and the law, of beauty and the beast, and of Britain at a late 18th-century major turning point. It also speaks one of my special interests: the history of black people in Britain, and slavery.

It tells the dramatic true story of the daughter of an African slave woman and an English sailor, raised in the company of the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (at the time when he was adjudicating major slave cases – Somerset and the Zong. [In the 1783 Zong case, the owners of the Zong slave ship made a claim to their insurers for the loss of the hundreds of slaves thrown overboard by the crew as disease and malnutrition ravaged the ship. Insurers refused to pay, but the case was taken to court and they lost. Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice for the case, compared the loss of the ‘slave cargo’ to the loss of horses, viewing the enslaved as property.]

The film is also the story of a beautiful woman celebrated in a major portrait. It is sumptuous, eye-watering and glossy: think Downton Abbey meets the slave trade. Yet for all the hype, for all the overblown praise and self-promotion of those involved, I disliked it.

There are some fine performances by a number of prominent actors, but even their skills and efforts can’t deflect the film’s basic flaws.

Q: Is the film historically accurate?

A: It is always hard for an historian to assess a film that is based on real events. After all, the makers need to weave a compelling story and a visual treat from evidence that is often sparse and unyielding.

In this case, much of the historical evidence is there – though festooned in the film with imaginary relishes and fictional tricks. Partly accurate, the whole thing reminded me of the classic Morecombe and Wise sketch with Andre Previn (Eric bashing away on the piano): all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order.

Q: What did the film get right?

A: The film was a bold statement about the black presence in British history, and was good at revealing the social and racial tensions of Belle’s presence in the wider world of Mansfield’s Kenwood House. Here was a world, thousands of miles away from slavery, but enmeshed in its consequences.

The message, however, was delivered with thunderous and didactic simplicity: Belle is often given lines that sound as if they’ve been nicked from an abolitionist’s sermon. Her suitor (later her husband), Mr Davinier, offers a wincing portrayal of outraged humanity. 

Q: What did it miss?

A: The real difficulty is that we know very little about Belle. To overcome that problem, the filmmakers had available a major event to bulk out a fading story: they hitch the fragments known about Belle onto the story of the massacre on the Zong slave ship.

The second half of the film is the story of Belle’s fictional involvement in that case. It portrays her growing outrage (following the simpering lead of her would-be suitor), and her activity as abolitionist mole in the Mansfield house. The aim is to illustrate Belle wooing Mansfield over to the abolitionist cause. To do this, the filmmakers make free with recently published material on the Zong. In truth, Belle is nowhere to be found in the Zong affair – except that is, in the film.

Tom Wilkinson’s Mansfield finds his cold legal commercial heart softened, and edged towards abolition by the eyelash-fluttering efforts of his stunning great niece. And lo! It works! In an expectant crowded courtroom scene (which could have been called 112 Angry Men), Mansfield’s adjudication becomes, not a point of law, but the first bold assertion towards the end of slavery. In reality, he merely stated that there should be another hearing of the Zong case – this time with evidence not known at the earlier hearing.

With freedom (for three quarters of a million slaves) beckoning over the horizon, Belle and her suitor step outside, find love, and Mansfield’s blessing – in the form of a knowing smile from Tom Wilkinson.

The film has all the ingredients for success. Lachrymose sentimentality, delivered to the screen by bucket-loads of opulent abundance. It has beauty at every turn (the brute ugliness of slavery remains a mere noise off-stage). Humanity and justice finally win out – all aided and propelled forward by female beauty.

I left the cinema asking myself: who would be spinning faster in their respective graves: Lord Mansfield or Dido Elizabeth Belle?

How many stars (out of 5) would you award the film?

For enjoyment: *
For historical accuracy: **

If you enjoyed this article, why not subscribe to the print edition of BBC History Magazine? Alternatively, subscribe to the magazine digitally – on iPad and iPhone, Kindle and Kindle Fire, Google Play and Zinio.

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here