Film Review: Belle

A remarkable story loosely based on the actual Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of an African woman (possibly a slave) and a Royal Navy captain, who grew up in one of the great houses of England during a turning point in the legal battle

Inspired by a painting in Scone Palace, Scotland, portraying two smiling, aristocratic young women, one white, one black, Belle imagines the singular life of the woman of color, Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was raised to be a lady in late-18th-century English high society. Director Amma Asante (A Way of Life) and writer Misan Sagay (The Secret Laughter of Women) embroider the little that is known about Dido’s life, and create a compelling costume drama that explores their heroine’s emotional and political journey. They are greatly aided by the fact that Dido’s guardian, the first Earl of Mansfield, was the Lord Chief Justice of England, whose rulings eventually contributed to the abolition of the British slave trade. But as the film makes clear, Mansfield struggled with the economic ramifications of ending slavery as much as the moral imperatives, and in the particular case at the heart of Belle, concerning the English slave ship Zong’s insurance claim on “lost cargo” (read: drowned slaves), his initial leaning appears to be with the status quo.

It’s a Cinderella story by way of Jane Austen, some of whose novels allude to the slave trade in the West Indies so crucial to the Empire’s wealth and power. Young, motherless Dido is literally lifted from a life of misery by her father, a Royal Navy captain (briefly but marvelously played by Matthew Goode), who brings her to the Hampstead estate of Kenwood House to be raised by his great-uncle and his wife, who also have in their charge another abandoned young relative, Elizabeth. The great Tom Wilkinson nails every line as the brilliant Lord Mansfield, starting when he admonishes the Captain about failing to share the fact that Dido was black before bringing her to them. We see Lady Mansfield (a no-nonsense Emily Watson) and Lady Mary (“Downton Abbey”’s Penelope Wilton in top form) eyeing the ragged child with distaste and worrying about her future, but soon Dido is elegantly dressed in one of Anushia Nieradzik’s gorgeous gowns, laughing and playing with her blonde half-cousin Elizabeth. The girls swirl into young ladies before our eyes.

As Dido, the stunning British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw touchingly conveys the pained bewilderment of an educated, refined woman forced to accept secondary status even among her loving family. Unlike Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), she cannot join her family and their guests until after dinner; she cannot come out into society to find a husband. Her only future, it seems, is to take over Lady Mary’s running of the household. Anguished one night, she sits before her mirror pulling the skin of her beautiful face, the incomprehensible barrier between her and a freer life. But in a clever twist, the plot allows Dido to inherit her father’s fortune, and suddenly the greedy nobility favor her hand over the pretty but penniless Elizabeth’s. Dido, however, discovers that marriage can be another form of bondage, especially among the English aristocracy.

Belle can be heavy-handed at times, insisting Dido be a spy, passing Lord Mansfield’s papers to John Davinier (a less than enthralling Sam Reid), Mansfield’s former apprentice and anti-slavery crusader. And the progress of Belle and Davinier’s initially contentious relationship is overextended and a bit pat. But the richness of the material, strong performances and excellent production design more than make up for these minor shortcomings.

In their one confrontation towards the end of Belle, Elizabeth accuses Dido of being beneath one of Elizabeth’s former suitors (played by Tom Felton in appropriately sinister Draco Malfoy fashion). When Dido asks why, Elizabeth surprisingly says, “Because you are illegitimate!”—adding to the prejudices of race, class and gender explored in this “period piece,” which speaks quite clearly to our time.

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