If you’ve ever wondered how Jane Austen’s novels might have looked like had the author paid more attention to race, you no longer need to use your imagination.
Loosely based on a true story, Belle spins an Austen-like yarn about Dido Elizabeth Belle, a woman who was raised by British aristocrats and who also happened to be the daughter of a British Naval officer and a black woman.
After her father leaves for sea — where he eventually perishes — Dido is taken in by her father’s uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). She’s raised on the Mansfield estate during the 1800s, prior to the abolition of slavery.
Belle follows Austen’s lead when it comes to finding a man for Dido. Dido’s ultimate soul mate must be a fellow whose values are more important than his position in society, presuming that he doesn’t fall too low on the British totem. Virtue trumps status.
Full of inspiring speeches about justice and well-acted by an exceptionally talented cast, Belle stands as a respectable period piece that approaches its subject in straightforward fashion.
Though portrayed as mostly happy, Dido’s upbringing wasn’t without problems. She and her white cousin Elizabeth became fond playmates, but when guests were present, Dido had to dine apart from the family lest visitors be offended by her presence.
This is but one of the movie’s many attempts to portray the mixture of gentility (which it does well) and savagery (which it does less well) that defined British society at a moment when the formal social order had begun to change — at least a little.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw leads the way as Dido, giving us a woman whose independent spirit and intelligence is clear from the outset. As the movie progresses, Dido gains in both assurance and conviction.
Dido’s realizations take two forms: Having lived among the upper classes, she knows she’s their equal. Increasingly, though, she also understands that her color connects her to those who are being viciously exploited because of their race. Dido’s political consciousness grows.
Wilkinson (joined by a fine Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield) delivers a wonderful performance as a conflicted man. As Britain’s Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield is about to rule on an important case involving the slave trade.
Lord Mansfield believes in maintaining the social order through law, but understands that he has a moral obligation to do the right thing. He loves Dido, but fears for her future.
As directed by Amma Asante — from a screenplay by Misan Sagay — Belle eventually conflates legal matters and romance. With Justice Mansfield’s decision looming, Dido’s personal life becomes increasingly complex.
Dido is courted by the socially well-positioned Oliver Ashford (James Norton), a man who’s willing to “overlook” her mixed-race background, perhaps because he’s eager to gain access to the income Dido inherited from her seafaring father.
You don’t need to be a master prognosticator to know that Dido ultimately will give her heart to an abolitionist firebrand (Sam Reid) who happens to be the son of a lowly vicar.
Miranda Richardson appears as the manipulative Lady Ashford — mother of Oliver Ashford. Lady Ashford’s older son James (Tom Felton) portrays the movie’s staunchest racist.
Sarah Gadon nicely handles the role of Elizabeth, Dido’s less-than-astute cousin who comes to envy Dido for the marriage proposal she receives.
Belle uses Dido’s story as the basis for a portrait of British society in the days prior to abolition. It’s not a subtle film, but the movie — to no small effect — is bolstered by a cast that knows precisely how to bring Asante’s plan to life.