Monthly Archives: August 2014

Politically incorrect film reviews – Belle

Cast

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle

Tom Wilkinson as William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield

Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford

Penelope Wilton as Lady Mary Murray

Sam Reid as John Davinier

Matthew Goode as Captain Sir John Lindsay

Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield

Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth Murray

Tom Felton as James Ashford

Alex Jennings as Lord Ashford

James Norton as Oliver Ashford

James Northcote as Mr Vaughan

Bethan Mary-Jeames as Mabel

Director Amma AsanteThis is a straightforward propaganda film in the politically correct interest, the particular interest  being that of racial prejudice and slavery.  It is the latest in a slew of such films over the past few years, most notably Django Unchained, Lincoln and  12 Years a slave. More generally, it is an example of the well-practiced  trick of taking of a black person  from history and elevating them way  beyond their importance simply because they are black –  the attempt to place Mary Seacole on a par with Florence Nightingale comes to mind.

Belle is set in the  middle of the eighteenth century and is based  extremely  loosely  on a true story, the looseness being  aided by the fact that information about  Dido is very scanty, resting almost entirely on entries in the accounts  of the house in which she is raised  (Kenwood House  in Hampstead) and diary entries made by the one-time Governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson who was a guest in 1789.

The story told in the film is this, around   1764 the Lord Chief Justice of England,  the Earl of Mansfield , takes into his household  a very young mixed race girl Dido Belle. She is  the bastard child of a slave Mary Belle  and Mansfield’s  nephew Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode).  The girl is legally a slave by birth, but is treated as a freewoman once she is in England.  Rather oddly Lindsay  is portrayed as absolutely doting on the child then vanishes entirely  from the film despite the fact that he lived for another quarter century.

The Mansfields  have no children of   their  own.  When  Dido arrives, they have already  taken in her  cousin,  Elizabeth Murray, great niece to Lord Mansfield.  Elizabeth and Dido grow up together, in the film, supposedly as  playmates and equals. This idea is largely derived from  a portrait painted of the two girls in their middle teens  by an artist originally thought to be Zoffany,  but now relegated to by anonymous.   The composition of the painting suggests that equality was not quite the relationship.  The picture  does have  Elizabeth resting a hand on Dido, but  shows Elizabeth ahead of the girl. In addition, Dido is carrying a basket with fruit and is dressed as the type of exotic ethnic human curiosity much favoured in paintings  in the 18th century, the exoticism being signalled not only by her race but the fact that she is sporting a  turban.  Such touches suggest subordination.   The Kenwood accounts book support this by showing Elizabeth receiving an allowance of £100 a year and Dido only £30. Her position was indeterminate, above a servant but below a unashamed relative.

The film ignores such details. Dido is  presented not merely as the natural  equal of her  cousin Elizabeth Murray, but judged on her merits and circumstances, as more desirable.  Her social status is elevated . She is described as an heiress with a fortune of £2,000 (worth £300,000 at 2014 prices)  left her by her father.  This is simply untrue. Dido  inherited  a half share of £1,000 from her father and was left £500 and an annuity of £100 pa in Mansfield’s will, but this was years after the events covered by the film – her father died in 1788 and Mansfield in 1793. In the film Dido as a girl of twenty or so  is represented as being a   prize in the marriage stakes because of the fictitious fortune, while Elizabeth Murray is portrayed  as the young woman in danger of being left on the shelf because, the film tells us, she has no fortune.  In fact, Elizabeth was an heiress  with the added lure of being the daughter of an earl.

To give substance to the idea that Dido is the better marriageable property,  the film has the son of a peer   Oliver Ashford ( James Norton) wooing and eventually proposing to  Dido.  His brother  James  (Tom Felton)  objects on the grounds of her race and (mildly) physically assaults Dido. Several other members of the Ashford family also take exception to the match. There is absolutely no evidence  for such a  romance and it is most improbable that someone of Ashford’s social standing would have thought of such a match,  let alone carried it through to the point of a proposal.

To this improbable confection is added the portrayal of the person who marries her. The name of the person John Davinier is true to life, but that is as far as reality extends. In the film Davinier is depicted as English, the son of a vicar and a budding lawyer who initially is taken under Mansfield’s patronage. In real life Davinier was French,  the son of a servant,  who worked as a steward  or possibly even as  a valet. That he was thought a suitable match for Dido points firmly to her social inferiority.

The  second half of the  film is largely devoted to Dido working  to influence Lord Mansfield over a suit relating to slaves.   In 1783 Mansfield  has to give a judgement in a case involving the slaveship  Zong and her insurers.  The insurance claim is made after the cargo of slaves are thrown overboard with the ship owners claiming necessity on the grounds that the ship was running dangerously short of water and could not make landfall to take on water before the entire ship ‘s company was put in  danger.   Davinier in the film is depicted as fervent anti-slaver who  persuades Belle to get hold of some papers from Mansfield  which proves that the Zong owner’s story is false. There is no evidence for Dido’s  involvement in the matter and as Davinier is a fictitious character as far as the film is concerned,  his involvement is a nonsense.

Next there is the dramatic  treatment of Mansfield’s denial of the Zong insurance claim as a triumph for the anti-slavers. In fact Mansfield’s judgement was a very narrow and legalistic one. He did not proceed on the grounds that a slave could not be treated as property to be disposed of at the slave-owners will. All he did was rule that the insurance claim was invalid because the ship’s captain did not have the reason of necessity for his decision to throw the slaves overboard.  The film does  include this judgment but overlaid it with anti-slavery rhetoric by having Mansfield quote in the  Zong action  his earlier judgement in a slave case – that of the slave Somerset t in 1772. There  Mansfield ruled that slavery in England could not exist because  “The state of slavery . . . is so odious that  nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law” and freed Somersett, the positive law not existing.   The Somersett case is actually a better platform on which to  put the antislavery case,  but was  foregone because Belle would have been at most ten when the case came to court and could not have been portrayed as taking a role in influencing the judgement other than by her mere existence.

There is also an  attempt to paint Britain as being greatly dependent economically on the slave trade and the use of slaves in  some of the colonies.  On a number of occasions it is stated that Britain would be ruined if  slavery was undermined. This was indeed a claim made by those benefitting  from slavery but it was not the general opinion of the country, nor does it meet the facts. Hugh Thomas in his The Slave Trade estimates that by the second half of the 18th century the returns on slaving were no better than that of many other cargoes.

Simply judged as an theatrical experience the film fails. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido presents  two problems. The first is  her acting which is horribly flat. Theatrically speaking,  she was no more than a blank sheet to be passively written upon, a politically correct banner to be waved at the audience. The second difficulty concerns her looks and demeanour. Frankly, to this reviewers eyes at least , she  is not  the irresistible  beauty  the film suggests and in this role lacks  feminine charm.  Ironically, her portrayal  may well be true to life, for Thomas Hutchinson describes her as  “neither handsome nor genteel – pert enough”.

To that difficulty  can be added the fact that so much has been made of the painting of Dido and Elizabeth  the filmgoer goes to the cinema with a firm idea of what Dido looked like. The painting shows her to have Caucasian features, which bear a strong resemblance to those her father  if his portrait is anything to go by.  Mbatha-Raw looks  so utterly different from the  portrait of Dido that her appearance becomes disconcerting.

There is a further point related to her looks. The painting of Dido and Elizabeth Murray shows Dido  to have been  distinctly Caucasian in her facial features  with a light brown colouring. Mbath-Raw, who has a white mother and black father, has little hint of Caucasian features and is rather darker in complexion.  Interestingly, in Twelve Years a Slave the same difficulty arises, with  the central character Solomon Northup in a contemporary depiction also  possessing strongly Caucasian features,  while the actor playing him had no such facial characteristics.   This is not a trivial flaw  because it is probable that the more like the dominant racial type in a society , the readier the acceptance  of the person by white society, even in such a status conscious time as the 18th century.   Could it be that the casting directors in films such as Belle and Twelve Years a Slave are consciously or unconsciously influenced by the idea that black actors and actresses should not look too  white?

An impressive cast of established English character actors surround Mbatha-Raw  and the film  looks  very pretty,  but it is dull, very very dull.   This is for the same reason that 12 Years a Slave is s dull.  it presents only one side of a story in  a very preachy manner. There is scarcely a moment when the viewer  does not feel they are being told what to think. The  slew of first rate English character actors do their best with the meagre fare they have been given,  but even the best of actors cannot make a dull script excite.

It is unreasonable to expect an historical film to religiously abide by the details  of a complicated story because  of the pressure of time and the need for dramatic impact. What is unforgiveable is the wilful misrepresentation of a person or event to satisfy an ideological bent.   Belle does this in the most  blatant fashion. Because racial prejudice has been elevated to the great blasphemy of our times, the film is not merely wrong but dangerous in its one-eyed nature and misrepresentations.

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The BBC decide one call with a minute to go is enough for immigration on Any Answers

Robert Henderson
Any Questions (BBC R4 1 August 2014 ) included a question on whether immigration had made Britain poorer. The question provoked an extended  debate which would have been much longer if the chairman had not cut the discussion short.
 
Both the time devoted to the question in the show  and the fact that every poll shows immigration to be at or near the top of the public’s current political concerns should have made it  one of the primary subjects of the following Any Answers. The reverse happened. 
First, the presenter  Anita Anand put the question down the batting order as she introduced Any Answers by asking for questions on the subjects discussed – she placed it very near the end –  then she took  just one call with 29 minutes of the thirty minute  programme, a call which lasted a few seconds. 
 
There is no reasonable explanation for the failure to relegate the question to a point where it virtually vanished from Any Answers.  The one caller who got on did complain about the late introduction of the question and was fobbed off with the usual BBC excuse of the weight of calls on other subjects driving it down the list. The excuse was particularly absurd in this case because the interest immigration provokes. It is reasonable to believe that the BBC deliberately  kept callers about immigration off the air to further their own political agenda.  The fact that Anand ancestry is subcontinental adds to the suspicion. 
 
As the BBC is a closed shop when it comes to how prospective callers to are chosen, there is no way to get an independent check on what they are doing.  It is also true that they operate of telephone system which blocks out callers deemed to be a nuisance – details below. 
 
Please investigate how the BBC chooses who shall be put on air during  phone-ins  and how the extraordinary treatment of  immigration on this Any Answers programme occurred. I would be delighted to come on to Feedback to question whoever the BBC puts up to justify their behaviour. 
 
I have submitted a complaint to Roger Bolton at the BBC’s Feedback programme. The email for those wishing to complain is feedback@bbc.co.uk.
 
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