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
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 with 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
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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