I’m no royalist, and I’m pretty sure this film was never made with me in mind as audience, but that said, this is all very jolly and likeable in an entirely flimsy way. It charts a putative night out that the royal princesses Elizabeth and Margaret spent in London on VE Day in 1945, while their father King George VI (Rupert Everett) stayed home to deliver a speech — you may remember another recent film about his speechmaking. By his side is his wife Elizabeth (Emily Watson), and while these four central characters are based on real people, there’s little point beyond that in trying to link any of their character traits or stories to reality: this is all very much fiction. The heart of the film is a comedy romp and the two lead actors do brilliantly well in hitting the right tone for their performances, with Sarah Gadon just a little bit reserved as ‘Lilibet’, while Bel Powley is an irrepressible riot of energy as Margaret (and easily the film’s comic highlight). The challenge for the filmmakers is on the one hand making its aristocratic protagonists likeable (which it largely does, hence my caveat about setting aside any sense of historicity), and on the other in harnessing a light-hearted comedy to a respectful depiction of the gravity of the historical events and the tolls of war on the soldiers. This latter aspect is primarily represented by the cantankerous Jack Reynor as a (working-class) AWOL airman who falls for Elizabeth. Thus amongst the peripatetic tour of nighttime London circa 1945 (with, incidentally, a strange sense of geography for those who know it), there are some requisite sombre moments, but for the most part it’s all about the comedy. If you can get past the use of the royal personages and suspend your disbelief, it’s all quite charming really.
Director Julian Jarrold; Writers Trevor da Silva and Kevin Hood; Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne; Starring Sarah Gadon, Bel Powley, Jack Reynor, Rupert Everett, Emily Watson; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Thursday 21 May 2015.
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the traditional period drama so beloved of English filmmakers. There’s something peculiarly retrogressive about that heady blend of overdressed men and women walking into, out of and around grandly decorated rooms in vast mansions, aristocratic seats of wealth and power, while talking about politics (if the character is a man) or matches that bring in £10,000 a year (for the ladies). And yet I’ve always been rather drawn to these overprivileged lives, with their finery and their petty concerns. At a certain level, Belle is no different: it has heritage sets, vast homes filled with art and beautiful furniture, and overdressed men and women entering and leaving its overdressed rooms. Yet its title character is one who would usually be doubly excluded from such a milieu, being a black woman. Her position is neatly signalled by repeated shots of her looking at paintings around the house which show black people subservient to their white masters, gazing adoringly upwards from prone positions in the corners of the canvases. The title character of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has a quite different, and quite unusual, position in society, for her parentage to a British Navy Captain allows her to be raised within this overprivileged world and through the independent wealth this affords her can break traditionally gendered restraints to get involved directly in the political arguments of the time. These, of course, revolved primarily around slavery and its importance to the interests of the British Empire, and in this respect it’s particularly helpful that Dido Belle’s surrogate father is the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who is working on a case involving the human rights of slaves killed by a slave trader. This case (known as the Zong massacre after the ship involved), along with another he later worked on (Somersett’s Case) and which is sort of elided into it here, are small but crucial steps on the path towards the abolition of slavery and the film implies that his relationship with the mixed-race Dido is key to his decision. All of this is, on the level of historical record, fairly unclear — there is little documentary evidence of Belle’s life aside from a remarkable painting of her with her (white) cousin Elizabeth — but as a film, it’s all very nicely staged and enjoyably acted by a set of excellent thespians with much experience at this sort of thing.
Director Amma Asante; Writer Misan Sagay; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 27 June 2014.