4 Stars — Inspiring
Belle is inspiring historical fiction. Based on the first painting to place a black woman at eye level with a member of the British aristocracy, writer Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante note that the two young women in the 1779 art piece are nieces of William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield. Murray was Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the highest judge in the land whose ruling on a slave ship massacre is credited with beginning the end of the lucrative slave trade of the British Empire.
But little is known historically about the two women in the painting or how they may have impacted the Earl's decision. This lack of historical information allowed Sagay and Asante to create a moving drama of what could have happened.
The black niece is Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate daughter of Cpt. Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) who brings her to his uncle's house when her mother dies. Of aristocratic blood, Belle is reluctantly taken into Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and Lady Mansfield's (Emily Watson) home and raised as a beloved though unequal member of the family.
This complex mixture of love and racial prejudice is a major theme within the film.
Also within their care is their white niece Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), who had been abandoned by her father. Elizabeth welcomes young Belle into their home as a playmate her own age and they soon become fast friends, eventually caring for each other as sisters. Raised as young aristocrats, they both realize that when they come of age, they have to live in a world that enslaves people in many ways by class, wealth, gender and race.
This recognition that slavery comes in a variety of forms is one of the strengths of the film and recognizes the necessity for people of faith and conscience to set people free. The person of faith comes in the form of a young clergyman's son named John Davinier (Sam Reid). Smitten by the beauty of Belle and awakened by his respect for her as a person, the two begin a courtship that weaves together faith, morality, law and love in ways that bring internal transformation to them, their families and eventually their nation.
A subplot of the film addresses the importance of marrying for love rather than for social station, as subtly encouraged by Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton), who is the spinster aunt of Belle and Elizabeth. Having been forbidden to marry her beloved when she was young, she works behind the scenes to help Belle in her romantic journey.
Speaking personally as Free Methodists, our denomination began as an movement to abolish slavery, to give dignity to the poor and to give women equality — in other words, to set people "free." Our core values of freedom for all people regardless of race, gender or socio-economic status causes us to resonate with this film and highly recommend it as a reminder that people of courage have changed the world and are still doing so as we follow Jesus' teaching to "love our neighbors as ourselves," whoever our neighbor might be.
» The struggle Lord Mansfield has to show both his love for Belle and his propriety as a Lord in British aristocracy creates an almost comical dance if it weren't so sinister. How do you think our nation continues to disrespect people because of their gender, race or economic status? What are you doing to change this disparity?
» In the film, the status of a person could be lifted if they became educated as a lawyer or a physician. Do you think that is true today? Does education lift a person in the esteem of our culture? Why do you answer as you do?
» The love of Lord and Lady Mansfield for each other allows them to accept the love that Belle and Davinier have for each other, though marriages at that time were usually arranged for other reasons. Do you believe that there is any reason to marry except for love — and what could that be? When people experience love in their marriages, does that love positively impact the way they treat others? Why or why not?
— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.