Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a captain of the British Royal Navy. Her mother is an African woman enslaved in the West Indies.
When her mother dies, Dido is brought to England by her father. He asks his aunt and uncle, Lady (Emily Watson) and Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), to raise his young daughter at their estate. They also care for another of their nieces, Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Elizabeth and Dido grow up with a very close friendship, almost as sisters.
One thing sets Elizabeth and Dido apart. While Elizabeth is able to take full advantage of the privileges of her lineage, Dido is kept from fully participating in 18th century English society due to the fact that she’s biracial.
Lord and Lady Mansfield doubt that Dido will ever marry, and Dido herself questions whether she will ever be able to find love — that is, until she meets John Davinier (Sam Reid), the abolitionist son of a vicar.
Belle, which premiered at TIFF in 2013 and received a wider release in 2014, was directed by Amma Asante. The film was written by Misan Sagay (reportedly rewritten by Asante) and is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle.
I’ll cut right to the chase here: Belle is a fantastic film. I had heard a lot of buzz about it before watching, buzz of the “best of the year” and “award-worthy” type, and the film doesn’t disappoint.
For fans of period dramas in general, this is certainly one to watch: like many period films, particularly British period films, it is a feast for the eyes. The sets and costumes are beautifully done, and the cinematography, though not flashy, is very nice as well.
But it’s set apart from other period films by, of course, its subject matter.
A viewer expecting a sweeping, broad exploration of race relations in 18th-century England may be disappointed. As a study of one person’s experiences in such a society, the film works very well. Dido’s story is moving and feels very relevant, despite the fact that we’re a few hundred years removed from it.
The film does dig into the legal debates over slavery that were taking place in England during this time — Tom Wilkinson’s character works in law, and Sam Reid’s character is passionate about the cause of abolition. This aspect of the story becomes more prominent in the second half, but the focus remains on Dido’s journey.
The performances of Belle are another impressive facet to the film. Not one cast member feels out of place in the film’s period setting. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as I mentioned in my brief review of Beyond the Lights, deserves every bit of praise she’s received over the past year or so. Her performance is stellar — subtle, but gripping and very emotionally effective. The supporting cast is strong, but Mbatha-Raw truly makes the film.
If you haven’t yet seen Belle, I highly recommend watching it, whether you’re a fan of period films, a fan of biopics, or simply interested in a not-too-often-discussed historical figure/aspect of history. It could have pushed the envelope further in terms of social critique, but it’s still a fantastic film.