“Belle” is a fascinating look at race, privilege, sexism, customs and class during late 18th century England. A far more complicated film than its previews suggest, “Belle,” directed by Amma Asante and written by Misan Sagay, is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle. To be sure, race is the film’s dominant issue, but what jumps out as a very close second is the topic of class. And as “Belle” very subtly illustrates, if you were not your family’s first-born male or came from a family of only women, your future could be very bleak indeed.
Dido Belle is the illegitimate daughter of a deceased black woman and white Royal Navy Officer, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). To keep her safe, he brings the young Dido (Lauren Julien-Box ) home to England to live with his aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) and demands that she be treated equally…as a member of the family. Lord Mansfield is the respected Lord Chief Justice, and he and his wife are already raising a niece, Elizabeth (Cara Jenkins). She is the same age as Dido and the two young girls quickly bond. Helping to raise both is their maiden aunt, Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton), who has a sharp tongue, but is the family truth-teller. For the most part, Dido is loved by all and treated equally except when guests are in the home for dinner. Too good to eat with the servants, but not good enough to dine with the family, she eats many meals alone.
The movie jumps ahead in time and both girls, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), are of dating age. They are pursued by one family of brothers. But is it for money or love? Also hovering in the background is John Davinier (Sam Reid), who is the son of a vicar and a rebel-rousing lawyer seeking an apprenticeship of sorts with Lord Mansfield. And, finally, there is the all important case on which Lord Mansfield will be ruling… (Gregson v. Gilbert)… which could do much to end slavery in England.
Belle’s cast is top-notch. Whether playing an American or Englishman, Tom Wilkinson never makes a false step. In “Belle” he is terrific at showing many conflicting emotions. Emily Watson is also very good as the mother trying to be fair to both girls. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as the outspoken, meddlesome aunt, and steals every scene in which she is a part. Sarah Gadon is fantastic as Dido’s cousin—accepting, jealous, supportive and ultimately human. Matthew Goode’s role is brief, but for me he makes more of an impression in “Belle” than he did all season-long in “The Good Wife.” As the outspoken lawyer and Dido’s potential suitor, Sam Reid is very good and appropriately dashing. Lastly, there is Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle herself. A relative newcomer, she is absolutely fantastic. One can’t wait to see what she does next.
In many ways, “Belle” has much in common with the television series, “Downton Abbey,” in illustrating how restrictive the English class system could be. Because Dido’s father provided her with a substantial inheritance, she was actually in better shape financially than her cousin. The lack of such a class system and the chance for opportunity…to rise above one’s birth… is perhaps what made America so appealing to so many. Unless and this is the big unless…unless one was black. And in this case, America fell very behind England.
“Belle” is part history, but wholly entertaining, too. It’s a story and film in which everyone can relate. It’s well worth seeking out.