A black woman brought up among the up­per class in 18th century Eng­land en­dures tri­als and tribu­la­tions in the quest for love and ac­cep­tance

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - PLAY MOVIES - CARIS BIZZACA

Decades ago, English ac­tor Tom Wilkin­son vis­ited Ken­wood House in Lon­don and among some Rem­brandts saw a paint­ing of two young aris­to­cratic women – one black, one white.

He didn't think of it again un­til some 30 years later, when he dis­cov­ered it was the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind his new film Belle.

Not only that but the house he had vis­ited once be­longed to his char­ac­ter Lord Mans­field.

“It’s just up from where I live,” Wilkin­son says of Ken­wood House. “And I re­mem­ber see­ing the paint­ing there, be­cause there’s a small art gallery there and it’s got some nice Rem­brandts in it and it had this one in it.”

The 1779 por­trait of Dido El­iz­a­beth Belle and Lady El­iz­a­beth Mur­ray is by an un­known artist, though widely at­trib­uted to Ger­many’s Jo­hann Zof­fany, the pain­ter cel­e­brated in the Gil­bert and Sul­li­van opera The Pi­rates of Pen­zance.

It de­picts two beau­ti­fully dressed young women – Dido (played in the film by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her cousin El­iz­a­beth (Sarah Gadon).

The film­mak­ers went on to learn that both of the girls were adopted by their great-un­cle Lord Mans­field, who was also a Lord Chief Jus­tice, and from there the film Belle grew.

“I thought it was just a fan­tas­ti­cally in­ter­est­ing story,” Wilkin­son says. “What’s in­ter­est­ing is the way in which that girl, who was of mixed race, was ac­cepted by the fam­ily and be­comes an in­te­gral part of it. And how dif­fi­cult it must have been at that pe­riod to ac­cept it.”

In the film, di­rected by Amma Asante, Dido is found by her fa­ther (Matthew Goode), a Royal Navy cap­tain, and taken to live with Lord Mans­field.

It is at Ken­wood House that she grows up along with her great-un­cle’s wife Lady Mans­field (played by Emily Wat­son), his sis­ter Lady Mary Mur­ray (Pene­lope Wil­ton) and his other great-niece El­iz­a­beth.

She’s raised with equal­ity and priv­i­lege, vir­tu­ally un­heard of for a black girl in Eng­land back in the 18th century. As Dido reaches her late teens and in­her­its a sum of money, she must bat­tle the so­cial prej­u­dice of the time for self-ac­cep­tance and the chance at love – all against the back­drop of a con­tro­ver­sial slav­ery case Lord Mans­field is pre­sid­ing over in the Supreme Court. The cast­ing of both his on-screen wife and sis­ter meant Wilkin­son was re­united with his co-star from Sep­a­rate Lies, Emily Wat­son, and Pene­lope Wil­ton from The Best Ex­otic Marigold Ho­tel.

“Cer­tainly Emily, I’ve done at least four things with her now,” he says, adding “it’s al­ways nice to work with friends”.

Wilkin­son has been in a num­ber of pe­riod pieces, from Shake­speare in Love to Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring.

“(But) it doesn’t make any dif­fer­ence to me, apart from the clothes you put on,” the vet­eran ac­tor says. “A story’s a story and you en­joy telling it. That’s what I’ve done all my life, whether it’s The Full Monty or Shake­speare, it’s an in­ter­est­ing story and it’s worth telling to people.”

Belle opens in cin­e­mas to­day.

Emily Wat­son and Tom Wilkin­son in the film Belle

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