Belle (2013 film)

Last updated

Belle poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Amma Asante
Written by Misan Sagay
Produced by Damian Jones
CinematographyBen Smithard
Edited by Pia Di Ciaula
Victoria Boydell
Music by Rachel Portman
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Release date
  • 8 September 2013 (2013-09-08)(TIFF)
  • 2 May 2014 (2014-05-02)(United States)
  • 13 June 2014 (2014-06-13)(United Kingdom)
Running time
104 minutes [1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$10.9 million
Box office$16.5 million [2]

Belle is a 2013 British period drama film directed by Amma Asante, written by Misan Sagay and produced by Damian Jones. It stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, and James Norton. [3] [4]


The film is inspired by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle beside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray at Kenwood House, which was commissioned by their great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, then Lord Chief Justice of England. Very little is known about the life of Dido Belle, who was born in the West Indies and was the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Mansfield's nephew, Sir John Lindsay. She is found living in poverty by her father and entrusted to the care of Mansfield and his wife. The fictional film centres on Dido's relationship with an aspiring lawyer; it is set at a time of legal significance, as a court case is heard on what became known as the Zong massacre, when slaves were thrown overboard from a slave ship and the owner filed with his insurance company for the losses. Lord Mansfield ruled on this case in England's Court of King's Bench in 1786, in a decision seen to contribute to the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.


Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay was born in 1761, the natural daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Captain Sir John Lindsay, a British Royal Navy officer. After Dido's mother's death in 1769, Captain Lindsay takes her from the West Indies slums and entrusts her to his uncle William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, and his wife Elizabeth, who live at Kenwood House, an estate in Hampstead (then outside London). Lord and Lady Mansfield raise Dido as a free gentlewoman, along with their niece Lady Elizabeth Murray, who came to live with them after her mother died and her father remarried. When the two cousins reach adulthood, the Mansfields commission an oil portrait of their two great-nieces, but Dido is unhappy about sitting for it as she is worried that it will portray her as a subordinate, similar to other portraits she has seen depicting aristocrats with black servants. Dido's father dies and leaves her the generous sum of £2,000 a year, enough to make her an heiress. Lady Elizabeth, by contrast, will have no income from her father, whose son from his new wife has been named his sole heir. Arrangements are made for Elizabeth to have her coming-out to society, but Lord and Lady Mansfield believe no gentleman will agree to marry Dido because of her mixed-race status, as well as concerns of lower ranking men only marrying her for her wealth, she will travel to London with her cousin, she will not be "out" to society.

Lord Mansfield agrees to take a vicar's son, John Davinier, into a law pupillage. In 1783, Mansfield hears the case of Gregson v. Gilbert , regarding the payment of an insurance claim, for slaves killed when thrown overboard by the captain of a slave-ship an event now known as the Zong massacre. Dido helps her uncle with his correspondence and after John tells her about the Zong case, she begins sneaking correspondence to him which he believes will advance the cause of the abolitionists. Lord Mansfield and John have a disagreement on the main issue of the case. John is told not to see Dido again, and his pupillage is at an end. Dido's aunts, Lady Mansfield and Lady Mary Murray, Lord Mansfield's sister, seek to steer Dido into an engagement with Oliver Ashford, son of a scheming grand dame and younger brother to the bigoted James Ashford. At first James is interested in Elizabeth but stops courting her once he discovers she will have no inheritance. Oliver, who is without fortune, proposes to Dido and she accepts, although she continues to see John. James takes Dido aside, tells her she will disgrace his family's name, then insults and gropes her. Dido later tells Elizabeth of his true character and says she will give part of her inheritance to her for a dowry so she can find a different match. Lord Mansfield finds out about Dido's visits to John and confronts both of them. During the confrontation, John professes his love for Dido. Sometime later, Dido meets with Oliver and breaks off their engagement.

Dido is relieved when the painting is unveiled, showing her as Elizabeth's equal. She tells Lord Mansfield that the portrait commission proves that he can defy convention. Dido sneaks into the balcony of the Inn of Court, so that she can hear Lord Mansfield narrowly rule that the Gregson slave-trading syndicate, based in Liverpool, is not due insurance payments for the slaves the crew threw overboard during the voyage. The ship's officers claimed they ordered this action because they were out of potable water. Lord Mansfield discovers, however, that the Zong passed by many ports without stopping for more water, before killing the slaves. It appeared to Lord Mansfield that the slaves' quarters were over-crowded, making them sick and not likely to fetch a high price at auction, so the officers decided they would be worth more in insurance payments after their loss. Lord Mansfield sees John and Dido outside the Court after his ruling and says that Dido can only marry a gentleman. Therefore, he agrees to resume John's pupillage, so that he can become a lawyer. Dido and John share a kiss, both in full acknowledgement of their romantic feelings.

On-screen text informs the viewer that Dido and John married and had two sons, that Elizabeth also married and had three children, and that the painting hung at Kenwood House until 1922, when it was moved to Scone Palace in Scotland, the birthplace of Lord Mansfield.



1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825). Dido Elizabeth Belle.jpg
1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761–1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760–1825).

The 1779 painting, once thought to be by Johann Zoffany, [6] is now attributed to David Martin. [7] The painting hung in Kenwood House until 1922 and now hangs at Scone Palace in Perthshire, Scotland. It was one of the first European portraits to portray a black subject on an equal eye-line with a white aristocrat, though distinctions are implied by the poses, as Elizabeth's "formality and bookishness are contrasted with the wild and exotically turbanned 'natural' figure of Belle." [8] [9]

The painting is replicated in the film with the faces of the actresses portraying the characters replacing those in the original. Dido's finger-to-cheek gesture is absent in the fictionalised version, as is her feathered turban. The original picture is shown on screen at the end of the film.


Filming began on 24 September 2012. The film was shot on location in the Isle of Man, [10] [11] Oxford [12] and London. It is the first major British motion picture to be shot in true-4K, using Sony's F65 CineAlta digital production camera. [13] The film was produced by DJ Films, Isle of Man Film, and Pinewood Pictures with support from the BFI. [14]

Production designer Simon Bowles created the 18th-century Bristol Docks on the Isle of Man and created Kenwood House, based on a number of stately homes in the London area.

Original music for the film was composed by Rachel Portman. [15]

Historical references

The film is a work of historical fiction, inspired by a painting and the evidence that Dido was brought up at Kenwood House. The relative lack of details about Dido Elizabeth Belle allowed screenwriter Misan Sagay considerable artistic licence in framing the young woman's story, within the broader historical context of the slave economy and the abolition movement.

The only other direct historical reference made about Belle, other than the painting and American loyalist Thomas Hutchinson's personal diary, [16] [17] appear in Elements of Moral Science, a 1790 work by the Scottish professor of moral philosophy James Beattie, who met Belle and in the book states she recited poetry with "a degree of elegance" [18] equal to any English child of her age, arguing against the then prevailing theory that "negroes are naturally and utterly incapable of distinct articulation". [18]

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who was Lord Chief Justice of England from 1756 to 1788, presided over two important cases, Somerset v Stewart in 1772 and the Zong insurance claims case in 1783, which helped lay the groundwork for Britain's Slave Trade Act 1807. As in the film, he was the great-uncle of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray.

At the suggestion of the producers, HarperCollins published a companion book, Belle - The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice (2014), by biographer Paula Byrne, recounting the lives of the film's principal characters.

Historical accuracy

Sagay chose to set the major events; Belle's and Elizabeth's love affairs and the Zong case, in the same year the painting was made - when Belle was about 18. In reality, Belle married at 32, long after Lady Elizabeth was married and no longer in touch with Belle. [19]

John Davinier was in real life a French manservant at Kenwood, not an English apprentice lawyer. [20]

James Walvin OBE, professor emeritus of the University of York, said of Belle: "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 Morecambe and Wise sketch with Andre Previn (Eric bashing away on the piano): all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order." [21] Reviewing the film for History Extra, the official website of BBC History Magazine, Walvin noted that while the second half of the film centres on Dido Elizabeth Belle's involvement in the Zong case, in reality she was "nowhere to be found in the Zong affair". [21] 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 his "adjudication becomes, not a point of law, but the first bold assertion towards the end of slavery". Walvin points out that "he merely stated that there should be another hearing of the Zong case – this time with evidence not known at the earlier hearing". Walvin awarded the film one star for enjoyment and two for historical accuracy.


Some press coverage ahead of filming cited Asante as the sole writer of Belle as well as director. [22] Press releases that followed Fox Searchlight's acquisition of the film gave the final credit determined by the Writers Guild of America as "Written by Misan Sagay". [23] [24] Sagay claimed she began writing her script in 2004, after seeing the painting of Dido Belle at Scone Palace. The project was initially developed by HBO. It then received funding from the British Film Institute in 2009, but Sagay left the project the following year due to serious ill-health. [25] When Asante was hired, Sagay believed that Asante would edit her script. Instead she learned that a script without her name on was being used. [25]

The subsequent arbitration process undertaken by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) determined that Sagay provided the bulk of content used in the script, so Sagay was awarded sole writing credit. [25] Cast members Penelope Wilton and Tom Wilkinson expressed "incredulity" at the accreditation decision. [26] Wilkinson said he "only saw and worked from a script written by Amma". [27] Information obtained by Entertainment Weekly showed Asante wrote 18 script drafts, before she directed the film. [27] Producers planned to submit Asante and Sagay as co-writers, but Sagay wanted a solo credit. Producer Damian Jones then asked the WGA to give Sagay a "story by" credit, with Asante getting a "screenplay by" credit, but this was rejected. [27] Asante appealed the WGA's decision, but lost. [26] [28]


In July 2013, it was announced that Fox Searchlight Pictures had acquired distribution rights for the film in the UK and USA. [29] Belle premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on 8 September 2013. [30] [31] The film was released on 2 May 2014 in the United States, 9 May in Canada and 13 June 2014 in the United Kingdom. [32]


The film received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a "Certified Fresh" score of 84% based on reviews from 150 critics, with an average rating of 6.99/10. The site's consensus states: "It boasts all the surface beauty that fans of period pictures have come to expect, but Belle also benefits from its stirring performances and subtle social consciousness." [33] Critic Mark Kermode named it his fourth-favourite film of 2014. [34]


AwardDate of ceremonyCategoryRecipients and nomineesResult
African-American Film Critics Association [35] 8 December 2014Best ActressGugu Mbatha-RawWon
Best FilmBelleNominated
Black Reel Awards [36] [37] 19 February 2015 Best Actress Gugu Mbatha-RawWon
Best Director Amma AsanteNominated
Best Ensemble Toby WhaleNominated
Best Film BelleNominated
Best Screenplay Misan SagayNominated
British Independent Film Awards [38] [39] 7 December 2014 Best Actress in a British Independent Film Gugu Mbatha-RawWon
Best NewcomerGugu Mbatha-RawNominated
Chicago Film Critics Association [40] 15 December 2014 Most Promising PerformerGugu Mbatha-RawNominated
Empire Awards [41] 29 March 2015 Best Female Newcomer Gugu Mbatha-RawNominated
London Film Critics' Circle [42] 18 January 2015 British Actress of the Year Gugu Mbatha-RawNominated
Miami International Film Festival [43] 15 March 2014SIGNIS AwardBelleWon
NAACP Image Award [44] [45] 6 February 2015 Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture Gugu Mbatha-RawNominated
Outstanding Directing in a Motion PictureAmma AsanteNominated
Outstanding Independent Motion PictureBelleWon
Outstanding Motion Picture BelleNominated
Outstanding Writing in a Motion PictureMisan SagayWon
Palm Springs International Film Festival [46] [47] 3–13 January 2014Audience Award for Best Narrative FeatureBelleNominated
Directors to WatchAmma AsanteWon
Satellite Award [48] 15 February 2015 Best Actress in a Motion Picture Gugu Mbatha-RawNominated
Best Costume Design Anushia NieradzikNominated
Women Film Critics Circle [49] [50] 16 December 2014Best Female Images in a MovieBelleNominated
Best Movie by a WomanAmma AsanteNominated
Best Woman StorytellerMisan SagayNominated
Karen Morley AwardBelleWon

See also

Related Research Articles

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield British barrister, politician and judge (1705–1793)

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, PC, SL was a British barrister, politician and judge noted for his reform of English law. Born to Scottish nobility, he was educated in Perth, Scotland, before moving to London at the age of 13 to take up a place at Westminster School. He was accepted into Christ Church, Oxford, in May 1723, and graduated four years later. Returning to London from Oxford, he was called to the Bar by Lincoln's Inn on 23 November 1730, and quickly gained a reputation as an excellent barrister.

Earl of Mansfield Peerage for the County of Middlesex

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David William Murray, 3rd Earl of Mansfield British army officer and peer

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<i>Zong</i> massacre Mass killing of enslaved Africans in 1781

The Zong massacre was a mass killing of more than 130 enslaved Africans by the crew of the British slave ship Zong on and in the days following 29 November 1781. The William Gregson slave-trading syndicate, based in Liverpool, owned the ship and sailed her in the Atlantic slave trade. As was common business practice, they had taken out insurance on the lives of the enslaved people as cargo. According to the crew, when the ship ran low on drinking water following navigational mistakes, the crew threw enslaved people overboard into the sea.

Kenwood House Country house in Hampstead, London

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Dido Elizabeth Belle was a British heiress and a member of the Lindsay family of Evelix. She was born into slavery and illegitimate; her mother, Maria Belle, was an African slave in the British West Indies. Her father was Sir John Lindsay, a British career naval officer who was stationed there. Her father was knighted and promoted to admiral. Lindsay took Belle with him when he returned to England in 1765, entrusting her upbringing to his uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and his wife Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Mansfield. The Murrays educated Belle, bringing her up as a free gentlewoman at their Kenwood House, together with another great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. Lady Elizabeth and Belle were second cousins. Belle lived there for 30 years. In his will of 1793, Lord Mansfield conferred her freedom and provided an outright sum and an annuity to her, making her an heiress.

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