Directed by: Amma Asante
On the heels of the Academy Award Winning 12 Years a Slave comes this similarly-themed equally well-made film that — historically speaking — took place around the same time but across the pond, in England. Inspired by the inspiring true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay. It is about how Dido (Mbatha-Raw) was raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife as an almost-but-not-quite member of the British Aristocracy. Given her unique lineage (Her mother was a slave, but her father actually acknowledged her birthright), she was afforded certain privileges, within the rigid class structure of British life in the later-day 1700s.
Ironically enough, while her status provided her with both stature, education and a comfortable lifestyle, it also prevented her from the traditions of noble social standing (Upon the death of her father — who spent the majority of her life away at sea — she inherited his wealth, if not his standing). Meanwhile her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) whose father for reasons never fully explained, never acknowledged her linage) had status but no money. The two girls grew up as sister/cousins and playmates; however, when it came time to court men for husbands (as at that time un-married women were looked askew at) Elisabeth wound chasing suitors for marriage, while Belle was left on the sidelines.
However, after meeting an idealistic young vicar’s son (Sam Reid) who wishes to become a lawyer and is bent on changing society, and the way it views slavery. He and Belle strike up a relationship based on commonality of interest and situation, and then the two of them go on to help shape Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England. Unlike 12 Years a Slave there are no scenes of brutality as the main thrust of the story is about how a Lord Mansfield is presiding over a case where a slaver ship dumped its cargo of slaves and is attempting to collect the insurance for its lost “cargo.”
What struck us most about this wonderful film was the societal rules under which everyone operated. The words “Gentlemen” and “Lady” had actual meaning, and while the class structure was apparently quite rigid, it is clear that some world-shattering changes could be (and in fact were) made by a dedicated few. Once again, we learn that "The Good old Days" are probably not necessarily as good as we might have recalled, and to grow as a culture, indeed as humans, is to constantly be revising, updating, and improving not just our own standing, but the standing of those less fortunate around us.
Robert j. Sodaro has been reviewing films for some 30 years. During that time, his movie reviews and articles have appeared in numerous print publications, as well as on the web. Subscribe to receive regular articles and movie reviews.