Belle: The story of an important figure in Black British history set amid some fine period interiors
Largely set at London’s former stately home Kenwood House, Belle is a period drama based on the real-life, 18th-century experiences of an important figure in Black British history.
Inspired by a 1779 painting at Kenwood House, this 2013 film tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) the daughter of British Royal Navy officer Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and Maria Belle, a black woman enslaved under the regime Lindsay upheld.
We follow Belle’s story as she is raised along side her white cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), by her aristocratic Great Uncle, Lord William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) then Lord Chief Justice of England and his wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson).
With some breathtaking period interiors (actually filmed in four separate houses), Production Designer Simon Bowles set out to enhance the feeling that Belle and her cousin Elizabeth were not in control of their surroundings: They often appear physically small within the grand scenes and palatial interiors.
“Director Amma Asante and I chose locations that had high ceilings and long corridors” said Bowles.
“We maintained a very tight palette of pinks, baby blues, greys and golds. As we were filming in stately homes we altered the look with carefully chosen carpets, chandelier, curtains, period furniture that we re-upholstered using fabrics within our colour palette”.
Two of the four houses used to represent Kenwood House were built by the same architect as Kenwood – Robert Adam, so elements such as door furniture and fireplaces already matched the design of the period.
Belle is set in a period of great legal significance and also one of importance to Black British history: This was the time of the court case know as the the Zong Massacre which involved the horrific mass killing of more than 130 Africans who were kidnapped or sold for slavery by the crew of the British slave ship Zong in 1781.
The Gregson slave-trading syndicate, based in Liverpool, owned the ship and sailed her in the Atlantic slave trade. As was usual at the time, they had taken out insurance on the lives of the slaves as ‘cargo’.
They claimed that due to some navigational errors, the ship ran low on drinking water and the crew threw slaves overboard into the sea. The owner filed with his insurance company for the losses.
Lord Mansfield ruled on this case in a decision that is seen to have contributed to the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.