Monday, June 16, 2014

The Dido Elizabeth Painting in "Belle"

As you know from many of my earlier posts, it is not exactly rare to have a painting serve as the center of a film. Some of my favorite pieces of film art have such a warm place in my heart because of their singular importance in their film. Similarly, many of these paintings are portraits because (if you remember the "Art of Film" Theory), portraits mean people, and people make the world go round. Therefore, I'm sure that you are not surprised that I was very excited when I learned that a new film was inspired by a historic 18th century British portrait. In full disclosure, I haven't seen Belle (starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tom Wilkinson) yet, but its very premise excites me.
The film is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed race daughter of English nobility and an enslaved African woman. Dido was raised by her uncle, William, the Earl of Mansfield, in a very delicate situation. While she was raised as a noblewoman, she was barred from many social situations due to her race. But her excellent breeding and education unsurprisingly caused her to question the hypocrisy of her situation and the story for a perfect film about race and identity was born. In fact, some believe that Dido is an essential, if not background, figure in the abolition of slavery in Great Britain. It looks to be a fabulous period film with an excellent cast and a moral message with a little romance nestled in between. In short, it looks like my kind of movie.
According to the filmmakers, early inspiration for the production of the film came from a portrait of Dido and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. The painting by Johann Zoffany, a German portrait painter, features two beautiful young women. The first, a lovely white aristocrat, sits demurely in the foreground, while the second, equally lovely (but certainly more mischievous looking), poses in the behind her. The portrait is fun, an adjective that doesn't usually describe 18th century aristocratic portraits. And besides being fun, the mixed race factor makes it an intriguing piece. Why is there a black and white woman in the same painting? Why does the black woman look equally noble, despite the position of blacks in Britain at the time? Why do they look so close? Between all those "whys," a film is born.
The painting still hangs in the Mansfield family's ancestral home, Scone Palace. It was there, that it raised enough attention to inspire the production of the film. Film or no film, the painting is just simply amazing and I'm so excited to learn more about its background. Unlike some other period films of this year (Grace of Monaco most notably), this film is opening to gentle positive reviews. Make sure you check it out in a theater near you.
Scone Palace

"Movie Inspired by a Painting" (my note: real creative title USA Today) by Maria Puente

"The slave's daughter who inspired a movement that set millions free: film tells amazing secret in painting." by Emma Pietras (Mirror)

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