The painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth currently hanging in Scotland's Scone Palace is fascinating for a number of reasons. The first is the striking beauty of the two women, and the obvious closeness of the two women. Both are clearly aristocratic to some degree, judging by their clothing and the very regal nature of the portrait itself. And it's that last aspect which makes the image all the more interesting, because Dido is black, a fact which would normally have her removed from the ways and means of aristocrats in 18th century England, where slavery was still very much a part of life.
There are faint echoes of 12 Years a Slave in Belle, Amma Asante's first directorial effort since 2004's accomplished debut, A Way of Life. What's missing is the emotional backbone to support Dido's uncommon story that saw her stuck between a world of privilege and one of subservience. Breaking free of the formulaic, saggy screenplay is the title performance by Gugu Mbatha Raw, who shows Dido to be a woman of exceptional inner strength. The illegitimate daughter of Admiral John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and a slave, Dido was sent to live on the palatial estate of his uncle, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), the 1st Earl of Mansfield. There she was treated as one of the family, becoming good friends with her cousin Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), and enduring the initial discontent of Murray's wife (Emily Watson).
"I am too high to eat with the servants, too low to join you at dinner", Dido says at one point, and it's true that being a part of high society has as many restraints as privileges. While loved and cared for by her family when alone, Belle is spirited off to other corners of the home when guests arrive, lest her presence offend their delicate sensibilities. The convergence of race and gender issues are skillfully dealt with when Dido suddenly becomes wealthy, granted an annual inheritance by her father. Now Dido finds she is suddenly very desirable to men who would otherwise turn up their nose at her, while her less financially secure cousin struggles to find a man who will accept her unconditionally. For women, upward mobility is all about money and power, nothing more. Mention love and you're likely to get scoffed at. But Dido is fortunate as she is granted the wealth to make decisions for herself, something most women do not have the luxury of.
"I have been blessed with freedom twice over."
Less effectively portrayed is growing debate over slavery taking place in England at the time, with Murray presiding over the real-life case of the Zong massacre, in which over 140 slaves were dumped off a ship in order to collect the insurance money on them. Dido is seen as forceful voice of reason in William's ear, and she finds support in the fiery rhetoric of upstart lawyer, John Davinier (Sam Reid), a suitor unlike any she has met before. Fitting with the film's generally shallow approach, little is seen of the harsh realities of slavery, preferring to tackle it through mechanical speeches on justice and equality. The lack of passion detracts from a handsomely photographed film and Mbatha-Raw's stirring attempt to do Dido's story proper justice.