The Romance and Beauty of Belle's England
To prepare to enter Dido Belle's 18th
Century world -- rife with lavish country houses, formal
gardens and brocaded gowns set against a backdrop of growing crusades to end slavery and advance
social justice -- the filmmakers went back to the spark that started it all: the painting of Dido and
Elizabeth. From that one image would bring forth an entire vision of Dido's life, from the gracious 14
Mansfield estate where she grew up to the courthouse where the Zong trial steered England's course
away from slavery.
Amma Asante asked her team -- headed by cinematographer Ben Smithard (MY WEEK
WITH MARILYN, THE DAMNED UNITED) and production designer Simon Bowles (THE
DESCENT, HYDE PARK ON HUDSON) -- to intimately get to know the painting.
"Taking the story from that one painting and expanding it into what you see onscreen has
been such an exciting project," Bowles says.
Adds Smithard: "There's so much there in the painting -- there's a truth to it and the love
between the two girls is genuine. So that really informed the way I shot the two of them. Visually, I
treated them as equals, because they were equal in their eyes, even if not to the rest of the world."
Asante also went well beyond the painting, bringing extensive research on life in the 1790s to
bear. "Amma really did her homework, studying how people were with each other in that period and
that really gave me something more to key into," says Smithard. "You want what you' re doing wi th
the camera to be in synch with the way the characters are behaving."
To best capture that dynamic range of behavior -- the jockeying for status, the social reactions
to Dido, the secret meetings with John and the legal proceedings -- Smithard made the choice to shoot
the film with the Sony F65 camera, which he describes as "a very high-end, very high-quality digital
camera that is a little more filmic than most of the other digital cameras."
But even with the flexibility of digital, Asante and Smithard eschewed handheld camerawork,
preferring old school dolly and tracking shots. "It was very important to us to place this unexpected
character in a very expected world," Asante explains. "So we didn't get too edgy with the look. The
important thing about the real Dido was that she existed in that classic, Jane Austen world; and we
didn't want to change the audience's perception of that world. So we went for classic all the way. The
name of the game for everybody involved in this film was beauty, beauty, beauty."
Bowles, too, focused on Georgian traditions in his production design. One of his first
challenges was to create the gritty Bristol docks, the medieval port often used by slave traders, which
would have been bustling with the energy of merchants and a polyglot of newcomers to the country.
"We wanted to take the audience with Dido from the dirt and grime of the docks to the sharp
contrast of Lord and Lady Mansfield's country home at Kenwood House," Bowles explains.
Ironically, although Kenwood House, where Dido lived with Lord Mansfield, remains one of
the UK's best-preserved stately homes, it was off-limits to the production. "It was being renovated,"
explains Bowles, "and the whole place had been stripped out."
Fortunately, London boasts several nearly identical houses designed by the same architect,
Robert Adam, a pioneer of the neoclassical style from 1760 onward. "We ultimately created our own
version for the film, using five different houses designed by Adams," Bowles elucidates. "So, the
dining room is in one house, Lord Mansfield's study, the entrance hall and the long gallery is in
another, the drawing room is in another, and are all tied together with authentic furniture."
Bowles contrasted the luxe formality of Kenwood House with the Mansfield's more casual
London home in Bloomsbury. "Everything in Kenwood is very square. All the furniture has square
backs to it, and the fabrics are very large, with flowers and strong colors," he says. "Then, in
Bloomsbury we have very curvy furniture, using fantastic embroidered fabrics with mahogany."
The palette also shifts between the two houses. "It was very important for me that with the
girls at Kenwood we were dealing with pastels, with the colors of innocence," Asante says. "Then in
London, as the scales start to fall from their eyes, we deal with a lot more sophisticated colors --
because we are dealing with more sophisticated characters -- which means we are dealing with deep
burgundies, deep emerald greens; we are dealing with lusher and darker woods."
Asante was thrilled with the impact of the design. "It was fantastic to put Dido into this
environment. We've never seen a mixed-race character in this setting before -- against those amazing
backdrops, with these grand statues, ceilings, floors and walls. On the one hand, you've never seen it
before, but in another way, Gugu fits in perfectly. She doesn't seem odd in those surroundings at all."
Mbatha-Raw agrees that she felt a natural connection to Dido on the middle of these time-shifting sets. "At first Dido's story for me was just the painting, then it became Amma's conception,
and then I was standing in a country mansion, and really seeing it come alive," says the actress.
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