Plenty of grist for drama’s mill
IN the 1780s, the period in which British director Amma Asante’s second feature, Belle, unfolds, slavery was still the source of a major part of Britain’s economy, and businessmen and abolitionists alike were transfixed by the Zong case. The Dutch-built slave ship was acquired by a Liverpool company in 1781 and was transporting 442 slaves from what is now Ghana to Jamaica when it became clear that the cramped conditions in which they were being held had resulted in disease.
Realising that his cargo of sick slaves would be worthless, the ship’s master made the decision to throw about 142 men, women and children overboard, and claimed insurance for their loss. The case eventually came before Lord Mansfield, the Scottish-born lord chief justice, and Asante’s film, scripted by Misan Sagay, suggests, with reasonable authority, that Mansfield’s landmark decision, which is seen as the beginning of the end of the slave trade, was influenced by a young mulatto woman who lived in his house.
Dido “Belle” Lindsay was the illegitimate daughter of British naval officer John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and a Jamaican woman. In 1769, Lindsay left his daughter in the care of his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson), who were childless. Also living in the house was another child the same age as Dido, Elizabeth Murray, daughter of another Mansfield nephew. The two girls became inseparable, but as the years passed it became obvious that the half-caste Dido was “different”; she wasn’t allowed to dine when company was present and, although the Mansfields were devoted to her, she was in almost every sense a second-class citizen.
Not quite, though, because the grown Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) was penniless and thus totally reliant on finding a husband to support her, whereas Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) inherited a fortune from her father and was consequently independent.
Belle is an unusually interesting costume drama. The themes it explores provide firstclass dramatic material. The end of slavery is a battle long won, at least in the Western world (except in the area of sex slavery), but the role of women in the 18th century is also up for discussion here (and comparisons are made between the options open to women then and the almost equally confined role designated to slaves).
Assante, whose previous film, A Way of Life (2004), was a low-budget contemporary drama, has directed this lavish and elegant tale with style and has assembled a stellar cast. MbathaRaw as the intelligent, loyal, independent Dido is an inspirational heroine.
Wilkinson is quietly convincing as the country’s most powerful legal mind, who finds himself faced with a decision that he knows will have monumental repercussions. As his concerned wife, Watson gives her usual reliable performance, and Miranda Richardson is wickedly amusing as the formidable Lady Ashford, who has two sons in the market for wives with generous dowries.
These arrogant young men are portrayed by James Norton, as the marginally more pleasant of the two, and Tom Felton, as the kind of bigoted racist to be avoided at all costs. In contrast is John Davinier (Sam Reid), a young man from an impoverished background, son of a local clergyman (and thus an object of scorn to the Ashfords), but eager to study law and one day to make a difference to society. Also notable is Penelope Wilton as the maiden aunt in the Mansfield family, the woman who experienced an unhappy love affair and never married and whose only means of survival as she nears old age is to work as a housekeeper, another example of the restricted options open to women in British society at the time.
This is quite a dense film in terms of character; there’s a lot to get your teeth into and, at the end of it all, it’s a rattling good story. The facts behind the Zong case and Mansfield’s decision were probably not exactly the “facts” depicted here, but Belle is a lively and entertaining fictionalisation of what might have happened. THE Cannes film festival, which opens in a few days, is more than just the world’s greatest showcase for the discovery of new cinema, it’s also a place where commercial deals are done, movies are financed and sales are made to territories all over the world. If you want an idea as to how all of this works, have a look at James Toback’s documentary Seduced and Abandoned, which should prove an eye-opener.
In 2012, Toback and actor Ben Affleck went to Cannes to raise money for a proposed remake of Last Tango in Paris, to be set in Iraq and titled Last Tango in Tikrit. Before leaving Hollywood for the Riviera, Toback assured the actress chosen to play the female lead in the proposed film, Neve Campbell, that no matter what happened her role was secure. Toback and Affleck discovered, however, that no financier was likely to give $15 million-$20m for a film starring Affleck and Campbell; they weren’t box-office names, and it wasn’t worth the risk.
I think we can take this whole exercise with several grains of salt because I doubt that a canny operator such as Toback, who has made eight low-budget features through the years with various degrees of success, plus a well-regarded documentary on Mike Tyson, believed that a project such as the one he was proposing would get off the ground.
More likely, Seduced and Abandoned (the title is borrowed from a classic Italian comedy of the 1960s) is an elaborate joke and the filmed meetings with money men aren’t taken very seriously, at least not by Toback and Affleck. These scenes are interesting, though, as Toback, faced with derisive offers of a budget less than half his requirements, starts wondering aloud how to attract more money. Maybe if Campbell’s character is killed off and a more bankable actress is brought into the story (Diane Kruger? Jessica Chastain?).
Equally fascinating are the interviews with some of cinema’s greats — Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci — who talk about how they got started and what Cannes means to them. Now confined to a wheelchair, Bertolucci is revealing when he talks about working with Marlon Brando on the original Last Tango. One of the highlights is a contribution from Ryan Gosling; his comments on Hollywood auditions are priceless. Seduced and Abandoned is, if nothing else, a film buff’s delight. LATEST in the depressing line-up of gross-out Hollywood comedies is Bad Neighbors (the original title dispensed with the “Bad”) in which Rose Byrne, playing an Aussie for once, and Seth Rogen move next to a frat house filled with unruly noisy characters. Banal riffs on pop culture themes vie for laughs with depressing jokes about tits, balls and dicks. The low-point has Byrne (who I hope was well paid) being “milked” by Rogen. Whatever happened to comedy?
Alec Baldwin, left, James Toback and Roman Polanski in a scene from Seduced and Abandoned