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Manx film to be Belle of box office

The painting that inspired the film Belle, which is screened in the Isle of Man from Friday

The painting that inspired the film Belle, which is screened in the Isle of Man from Friday

  • by Simon Artymiuk
 

The official British launch took place last week for the first feature film to be made in the Isle of Man after Tynwald controversially approved investing more than £12m in Pinewood Studios in a bid to further develop the Isle of Man’s film industry.

Belle – a lavish costume drama based on the true story of the mixed race daughter of an African slave woman and a British admiral – opens at Broadway Cinema at the Villa Marina in Douglas this Friday (June 20).

The story follows the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle who, in 1766 at the age of five, was brought from the West Indies to live at Kenwood, the mansion near London of her father’s uncle, William Murray, Ist Earl of Mansfield – the Lord Chief Justice of England who presided over some notable court cases which led to calls for the abolition of the slave trade.

Manx audiences will see the Isle of Man being used to good effect – along with hundreds of island residents who volunteered as extras – to recreate Georgian settings as diverse as the quaysides of the booming port of Bristol on one hand, and the fashionable London pleasure ground of Vauxhall Gardens on the other.

The story of how the film came to be made begins with a portrait.

Part of Dido’s role in the Mansfield household was to be as a companion to her cousin, Earl Mansfield’s granddaughter Lady Elizabeth Murray. It was a 1779 painting of the two of them which hangs in the Earls of Mansfield’s ancestral home of Scone Palace in Scotland which provided the spark of inspiration for Belle’s writer, Misan Sagay, whose previous movie credits include The Secret Laughter of Women and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

This summer the painting is the centre-piece of an exhibtion telling Dido’s story at Scone, but it was very different when Ms Sagay first saw it.

On the website for Kenwood House, which is now owned by English Heritage and has its own Belle-inspired exhibtion, she is quoted as saying: ‘The black woman in the painting was not named in the house guide, so I did some further research to find the two women were actually relatives.

‘As a writer and a black woman, I was dedicated to finding these stories of other black women at a time when they had little voice.’

Her proposal for making a film about Dido’s story met with a sympathetic response from producer Damian Jones, whose recent film credits include the award-winning The Iron Lady, charting episodes in the life of Margaret Thatcher.

In 2007 he had come across a copy of the Dido and Lady Elizabeth painting which hangs in the housekeeper’s room at Kenwood and had also found it intriguing.

He is quoted as saying: ‘I was astonished to see this completely ambiguous portrait of a stunning black woman and a stunning white woman. Were they friends? Were they sisters? Was one a servant? You couldn’t tell. They’re touching, there’s a wry smile . . . it was fascinating.’

Unfortunately, partway through the process of writing the script, Ms Sagay became ill and had to leave the production, so the task was completed by the film’s director, Amma Asante, for whom Belle is her second feature film following A Way of Life in 2004.

Despite this, following the purchase of the distribution rights by Fox Searchlight, the Writers’ Guild of America has subsequently decided to award the sole writing credit to Ms Sagay as she had done the bulk of the work.

Also involved in the production as director of photography was Ben Smithard, who recently brought a remarkable story from the 1960s to life for television audiences in My Week With Marilyn.

Capturing the essence of 18th-century England, however, was the job of production designer Simon Bowles, whose other 2012 credits included the Franklin D Roosevelt biopic Hyde Park On Hudson, and costume designer Anushia Nieradzik, whose previous credits included the 2008 movie Hunger, about hunger strikers in 1970s Northern Ireland.

In early August 2012 I gained an insight into the research that goes into finding film locations when, while enjoying an evening out at the Indian restaurant in Port St Mary, I received an unexpected call on my mobile phone from locations researcher Andrew Cooke.

To this day I have no idea who gave him my number, and why they thought of me, but to my surprise he asked me if I could make any suggestions as to places around the island which would be suitable for representing the Georgian period in a film to be called Belle. Not knowing exactly what the plot of the film was, I made a few suggestions - the centre of Castletown was one - and sent him digital copies of a few articles I had written about that period in the island.

Next day I received from Mr Cooke a forwarded email asking: ‘Hi Simon, do you know anywhere on the island that looks a bit like this?’

The original email had come from Simon Bowles and the photo showed a courtyard garden at Syon House in London and a mention of a scene to be set in Bloomsbury.

When I googled ‘Simon Bowles’ I suddenly realised that someone quite important was involved and consulted some Manx friends for ideas of places which fitted the bill.

I now know that Bloomsbury Square (the area where the British Museum is now) is where the Earl of Mansfield had his London townhouse, so I guess its garden is what the film-makers were trying to recreate.

A further email request asked for suggestions of a larger garden with gravelled walks and yew hedges.

My friends’ suggestion of Milntown gardens was evidently ruled out in the end, but hopefully I was of some help because Mr Cooke sent me an email thanking me for what he called a ‘fantastically helpful’ response, and added: ‘I am coming back to the island on Tuesday morning and will be hot on the trail’.

A month and a half later, on September 24, the film-makers began shooting scenes on the island and producer Damian Jones was quoted by the BBC as saying that despite ‘initial reservations’ he had found several ‘perfect’ locations for making Belle in the Isle of Man.

He added: ‘I think the dungeons at Castle Rushen will make great slums and the atmospheric quayside area will transform into a dockyard.’

When it proved too difficult for all the local boat-owners to remove their modern craft from Castletown harbour, a period backdrop had to be put up to capture the right look for the quayside scenes.

Meanwhile, MHK Lawrence Skelly predicted the production would bring £1m to the Manx economy, adding: ‘Belle is particularly significant as it is our first collaboration with Pinewood Studios, one which we expect to be the first of many, and heralds the start of a fruitful and exciting period for the island and its film industry.’

Beverly Lawley, of Port Erin, who runs Ex-Isles film agency, had the difficult job of populating the scenes in which the Castletown quayside under the walls of Castle Rushen became the hub of colonial trade that was 18th-century Bristol. This meant recruting hundreds of extras and then kitting them out in period clothing such as frock coats, breeches, tricorn hats, wigs and gowns.

Then there were even more elaborate costumes for the evening scenes representing Vauxhall Gardens – where the ladies and gentlemen of the ‘ton’ (as the leaders of fashion were known at the time) went to enjoy themselves promenading in the tree-lined walks lit by lanterns, partaking of supper in galleried boxes similar to those of a theatre and listening to musicians performing on an open air stage like at a modern proms concert.

Beverly told me: ‘Belle was a challenging production as we had approximately 300 extras who all had to be fitted with costumes and the ladies had to be quite small as the dresses in the Vauxhall garden scene were corseted. It was a huge task getting the right looks for all the parts needed.’

For men, a clean-shaven look was preferred as beards were not generally worn in 18th-century England. As for the women, they needed to have a certain length and colour of hair as it was not possible to fit everyone with hair pieces, eventhough elaborate powdered wigs were the fashion for well-to-do women – and men – of the period.

Around 20 women extras proved to be something of a problem because they arrived for filming with colours in their hair.

Another part of Beverly’s responsibility was to recruit a troupe of local musicians to perform in the Vauxhall scene.

The location used was the gardens of Billown Mansion, near Castletown, the home of John Whittaker, whose The Peel Group company owns a majority holding in The Pinewood Studios Group.

The grounds at Billown were also used for a daytime picnic, and a church service scene was filmed at Ballaugh Old Church.

Beverly said even though the production had been tough and challenging to work on, the scenes looked amazing once everything came together – something which is borne out in the film’s trailer, which features snippets of the scenes shot in the island and can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Qx90wdRD2I

In early November the film unit moved on to Oxford and London itself, where Chiswick House and the Ranger’s House at Greenwich were two locations used.

However, before they left Damian Jones was quoted as saying: ‘The island has provided everything we needed – even two days of abysmal weather worked quite well for the scenes we were shooting’

Having previously been shown at the Toronto Film Festival in September last year and then released in the USA last month, Belle had its London premiere at the British Film Institute at London’s Southbank last Thursday and photos of the stars in their red carpet attire appeared in UK national papers as well as on fashion and film websites.

A particularly effective image was of leading actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who plays Dido Belle) in a black mini dress with folded detail and gold pendant earrings standing alongside Canadian actress Sarah Gadon (who plays Lady Elizabeth Murray) in a contrasting white lace dress with lower hemline.

Also attending were director and co-writer Amma Assante in an orange and silver brocade sleeveless frock and Miranda Richardson in a long evening dress. Former Harry Potter star Tom Felton and Australian actor Sam Reid, who plays Dido’s love interest John Davinier, looked dapper in sharp suits.

After the film was screened, the 350 people attending the premiere were treated to a performance by pop star Prince and 3rdEyeGirl.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw also gave interviews to the press at Dido’s old home of Kenwood, telling them: ‘It was quite amazing today and walk in and feel Dido’s spirit there and just to know we were celebrating her and celebrating the film’.

She also said: ‘Of course I felt an affinity with Belle. We tried, myself and the director, to make her as much as a living, breathing human being as possible.’

With the film exploring such topical issues as human trafficking and female identity and gender roles, and with reviewers describing it both as ‘Jane Austen-esque with a twist’ and ‘packed with colour and grandeur’, it will be interesting to see how it will be received by Manx cinema-goers when it is screened on the island from the end of the week.

 

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