‘Belle’ skillfully explores breaking down barriers

“Belle” (2014). Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sarah Gadon, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, James Norton, Tom Felton, Alex Jennings, Lauren Julien-Box, Cara Jenkins, Bethan Mary-James. Director: Amma Asante. Screenplay: Misan Sagay. Web site. Trailer.

Prevailing limitations can be severe impediments to invoking change and righting wrongs. The implications of this are apparent in an array of life’s venues, too, from those that are highly personal to those that affect the entire spectrum of society. But, when individuals of conviction come along to challenge existing limitations, the potential for dismantling those barriers soars. Such are the circumstances at work in the new fact-based historical drama, “Belle.”

When British naval officer Admiral John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) learns of the death of the mother of his young mixed-race daughter, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Lauren Julien-Box), he sincerely wants to do right by her. But, considering his naval career’s seafaring obligations, the Admiral also knows he’s away from home often and incapable of raising Dido properly. As a consequence, he decides to place her in the care of his uncle, William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who also serves as Lord Chief Justice of England’s highest court. While sympathetic to his nephew’s plight, Lord Mansfield and his wife (Emily Watson) have serious reservations about taking in the young girl. Given the socially accepted racism of 18th Century England, they fret over what their aristocratic peers might think about them raising an illegitimate mulatto child. However, Admiral Lindsay insists that Dido’s bloodline rightfully entitles her to certain privileges, an argument that causes his aunt and uncle to relent and assume responsibility for their grand-niece.

To assuage any misgivings they have about their decision, Lord and Lady Mansfield comfort themselves in the knowledge that Dido would make a welcome companion for another grand-niece in their care, the lonely young Elizabeth (Cara Jenkins), who is about the same age as her newly arrived cousin. The girls quickly become fast friends and confidantes, forging a bond that grows ever stronger as they mature into young adulthood. And, to ensure that they’re groomed as proper young ladies, both girls are entrusted to the tutelage of their refined but spinsterish aunt, Mary (Penelope Wilton).

With the passage of time, Dido blossoms into a beautiful, sophisticated young woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). However, despite the privileges to which she’s entitled (such as a generous inheritance from her now-deceased father’s estate), she’s also denied participation in many social customs that others in her household, like her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), are freely accorded (such as joining the family at formal dinner parties). It’s as if Dido lives in a sort of social purgatory, blessed with certain advantages but forbidden from availing herself of some of the most basic common courtesies, a conundrum that puzzles and frustrates her. Even Elizabeth and Lord and Lady Mansfield are uncomfortable with this socially sanctioned hypocrisy, and they struggle to walk the tightrope of proper etiquette, taking incremental steps to “palatably” ingratiate Dido into their world without causing undue offense to their peers’ sensibilities.

Dido’s carefully orchestrated introduction into English high society prompts mixed reactions. Some of the aristocracy, such as would-be suitor Oliver Ashford (James Norton), view her as alluring and charming. At the same time, others, like Oliver’s brother James (Tom Felton), look upon her as “repulsive.” And still others, like Lady Ashford, the squabbling brothers’ calculating mother (Miranda Richardson), size up the young heiress for how she might benefit her family’s social standing and fiscal condition.

While Dido enjoys Oliver’s flattery, her romantic attention is drawn elsewhere – to an aspiring young lawyer, John Davinier (Sam Reid). The idealistic attorney seeks to make his mark in an insurance claim case in which the owner of a slave ship is suing its guarantor for denied reimbursement of its lost “cargo,” a shipload of ill African natives who were intentionally thrown overboard, chained to one another, because their failing health allegedly threatened the welfare of the ship and its crew (not to mention their market value among potential buyers). Mr. Davinier, the idealistic son of a country vicar, believes that a ruling against the claimant would significantly boost England’s growing abolitionist movement, an initiative aimed at outlawing the country’s longstanding (and highly profitable) slave trade, a practice the social activists consider a humanitarian abomination. It’s also a case where the decision rests with Lord Mansfield.

Given her personal experiences and the horrid fate of the real victims in this case, Dido sympathizes with John’s efforts. She quietly but passionately lobbies on his behalf with Lord Mansfield, who struggles to remain objective and avoid any appearances of a conflict of interest. Considering his role as Dido’s guardian, the Chief Justice worries what the public will think if he’s perceived as letting his personal feelings influence his decision, especially if he were to find in favor of the insurers. But, no matter what his current family circumstances might be, Lord Mansfield’s own outspoken views of the slave trade – criticisms he openly wrote about in the past – are already in the public record. So, in making his ruling, he faces a difficult choice: Will he strictly follow the letter of a law that would appear to compel reimbursement? Or will he follow his heart, based on his personal experiences and his own documented idealism? To rule fairly, he requires credible evidence to make an impartial, genuinely informed decision. And, when such evidence surfaces, the good judge issues a ruling that surprises everybody – including himself.

Dido, meanwhile, faces a difficult choice of her own: Will she pursue a relationship with Oliver, a well-heeled admirer who sincerely adores her and whose aristocratic pedigree would “validate” the legitimacy of her social standing (despite the stigma of her minority status)? Or will she follow her heart and seek romance with John, a noble soul who would assuredly provide her the unconditional love she craves but whose “inferior” class status might diminish her place in society?

Both decisions carry huge implications affecting not only the Mansfield household but also society at large. The outcomes in both instances, of course, depend on whatever intents underlie them, just as is the case with anything that manifests through the power of conscious creation.

At its heart, “Belle” explores how to use conscious creation to intentionally break down barriers. This is most apparent in a racial context, but it also applies to expanding the positions women occupy in society, as well as shattering the class rankings “assigned” to everyone, from slaves to the aristocracy. In all of these cases, the rigidity of the existing social structure is designed to purposely keep people in their place, and the persistence of this system is preserved and reinforced by a society in which most everyone willfully buys into beliefs upholding it. These notions are generally supported without question, sustaining its structure and assuring its continued existence. It’s a system that’s virtually immune from alteration.

But then along come individuals like Dido, Admiral Lindsay, Mr. Davinier, Oliver Ashford and Elizabeth, all of whom are capable of envisioning – and believing in – possibilities that go beyond established norms. Suddenly, the unquestionable comes up for scrutiny, especially for the roles of minorities and women. And, even though the changes these courageous visionaries seek to implement may not come to pass immediately, they at least help to initiate the process of reform to a paradigm sorely in need of it.

Of course, getting these changes implemented would never happen if their advocates didn’t zealously draw upon qualities that make their institution possible. Their willingness to embrace traits like courage and integrity, cornerstone elements of the conscious creation process, energizes their efforts by enabling them to form beliefs necessary for their manifestation and by strengthening their faith to see things through to materialization. Those who are willing to think outside the box possess these qualities, and they don’t hesitate to make use of them in furthering their causes and advancing convincing arguments to influence the attitudes of others. Tremendous accomplishments, both personally and in society as a whole, are possible when all of these factors are allowed to hold sway, yielding satisfaction and fulfillment beyond compare.

“Belle” is easily the best film release of 2014 thus far, an engaging Austen-esque tale with a social conscience. It’s a superb period piece, with exquisite production values in such areas as costumes, makeup, set design and art direction, as well as a beautiful soundtrack by Rachel Portman. The picture’s deftly penned script makes its points without becoming preachy, with many of its philosophical discussions skillfully and gently raised through “what if” and “why not” conversations among the protagonists. And the story is effectively brought to life by the excellent performances of its wonderful ensemble cast, particularly Mbatha-Raw and Wilkinson. Director Amma Asante has produced a film that is definitely worthy of serious awards consideration, though the timing of its release and an inexplicably weak critical reception thus far may work against it.

Miracles are truly possible if we allow the courage of our convictions to have free reign in their manifestation. Dido and her kindreds discover this for themselves in many ways, a realization that enables them – and countless beneficiaries of their efforts – to reap abundant rewards. The same is true for any of us who have the vision to imagine undreamed-of possibilities and the fortitude to surmount the walls that keep us from them. Indeed, if change can be invoked under restrictions as rigid as those in place in 18th Century England, there’s no telling what can be implemented under the more tolerant conditions in place today.

And who says we can’t learn anything from history?

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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