‘Belle’ is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle a mixed race woman whose bravery takes place during a time when women’s opinions were not valued. Men ruled everything and a woman’s fortune was theirs to ruin at will.
Dido, (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)) the illegitimate mixed race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her status prevents her from the traditions of noble social standing. While her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) chases suitors for marriage, Belle is left on the sidelines wondering if she will ever find love. After meeting an idealistic John Daviner (Sam Reid’s) young vicar’s son bent on changing society, he and Belle help shape Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England.
‘Belle’ sheds light on the little-known trial held in Great Britain dealing with the ‘Zong’ massacre of 1783, when a slave ship threw their cargo (African slaves) overboard and sued the insurance company for their loss. The outcome of this trial set the precedent for ending slavery in England.
The private life of the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield is set against the backdrop of the trial. The film takes liberties to show how his ward, Belle, influenced his decision on the High Court. Tom Wilkinson delivers a solid performance as an aristocrat who is torn by the love for his great niece and the mores of society. For example, in his desire to keep Dido from suffering harm from others, he isolates her from the very society that her privilege birth right affords her. As a result, Dido who does not want for wealth (her father left his estate to her) is separated from visitors so as not to offend them.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid’s chemistry makes their performance as secret lovers believable. The audience is able to see how the young girl and the law apprentice are drawn to each other. Their affair mirrors their clandestine mission to ensure that the court strikes down the laws of slavery. One of the most heartfelt moments in the film is when John defies Dido’s uncle and professes his love for her.
Although the movie is based on her life, little is known about the real Dido Elizabeth Belle except that she did marry John and they had two sons together. In fact, the movie is inspired by a portrait of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth (shown as equals) that hangs in a museum dedicated to the Chief Justice.
‘Belle’ is a wonderful period piece that tackles a little known subject and will enlighten its audience. It is Rated PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images and it has a run time of 104 minutes. It opens in Houston on May 16.