Monday, May 26, 2014

Movie | Challenging Law and Convention in the Austen Era

Despite saying this blog was going to start covering other forms of media besides just books, I haven't actually done that since I recommended you immediately watch season 1 of Veronica Mars. Today I went back to the Belcourt to see the new film Belle and decided I would take this opportunity to branch away from books and tell you about it!

Belle is a period piece, set in England back in the late 1700s as the slave trade is still a major part of Britain's economy. Dido Elizabeth Belle is both blessed and cursed in her time; she is the illegitimate daughter of an African woman and a British admiral, and, once her mother has died and her father learns of her existence, she goes to live with her father's family in England where she's raised as a lady of the house. Her uncle also happens to be Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice (aka, a very powerful man in the law of the country).

Though Dido is raised as a lady in a respectable home, and although she is fortunate to inherit her father's wealth providing a life of financial independence, she is still limited by the social codes of the day. As a woman she is still expected to marry well and become, essentially, the property of a husband; and as a mulatto, she is still shamed by her mother's blood.

As Dido becomes increasingly attune to the indignities and inequalities she has suffered, her awareness is also fueled by the controversial case regarding a slave ship called the Zong, where over 100 sickly slaves were thrown overboard and the crew demanded insurance repayment for damaged cargo. The outcome of this case of "insurance fraud" rests, naturally, on Dido's uncle; to deem slaves as humans rather than cargo threatens the country's entire economy, but to demand insurance payment perpetuates a society where men are valued by the color of their skin.

So there's class and economy and social rules and human rights. Oh, and there's also romance, as Dido is offered a respectable future with a "suitable" match while harboring passionate feelings for an unsuitable non-"gentleman."

The cast of Belle is wonderful—you'll find most every stellar British actor that graces various PBS miniseries—and the leading lady is especially mesmerizing. The setting, the costume, the details as well. The tension is ever-present, creating a plot that you are unsure of how it will conclude. Overall, though, it feels like a much lighter movie than the subject matter seems like it should warrant. Perhaps it's simply an inherent result of its historic setting; lacking the immediacy of the present (or even near-present), it doesn't feel quite so heavy-hearted and dire. In many ways, it feels much like a provincial story from Jane Austen with just a smattering of social commentary. But here the social commentary is, as it should be, much larger, though we never feel bogged down by the situation before us; we know what is right and what is wrong, who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. This is a story with heft but ultimately more heart-warming than heart-wrenching [a-okay by me!]; you leave feeling like you consumed a good story instead of with a lot of lingering questions to discuss.

For those looking to delve deeper into this story, there is unfortunately not very much! It was actually a painting that inspired further investigation, quickly leading to this movie version. There does appear to be a book on the subject—Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne—but its publication falls directly in line with the movie release; I'm not sure if should be categorized as "thorough research" or "cross promotion."

No comments: