Film Review – Belle
The film Belle is an extrapolated piece of historical fiction inspired by a painting by Johann Zoffany that hangs in Scotland. It features Dido Elizabeth Belle, an English-African woman besides her English aristocratic cousin and, apparently, there is little known historical fact in regards to Dido. The filmmakers and director Amma Asante weave a dense tapestry on screen involving romantic love and historical turning points that is bound to please fans of romantic period dramas.
The story opens as a young Dido is brought by her father, a Royal Navy Admiral (Matthew Goode) to the manor of his great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) to be raised as an aristocratic lady. Dido is of mixed race, and initially provokes apprehension from Mansfield and his wife (Emily Watson) but soon grows to fit in the family and develops a close bond with her half-cousin Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). We later see them as older teenagers, as Dido learns her father has perished and left her with a large inheritance. This encourages the family to have Elizabeth meet potential suitors to ensure and protect her future. She notes, ironically, that Dido is the only true free woman; where most ladies much find a rich husband and be bound to him, without much prospect for their own personal futures – ‘a different type of slavery’.
Around this same time, Lord Mansfield is faced with the case of the ‘Zong’ massacre – where over 100 African slaves were drowned whilst en route to England. The shipping company demanded compensation for ‘loss of cargo’, whilst the insurance company refuses to pay. Dido begins to take an interest in the proceedings and is subsequently courted by Lord Mansfield’s legal intern John Davienier (Sam Reid). Another subplot involves Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) scheming to have her eldest son Oliver (James Nolan) become engaged to Dido to attain her fortune, whilst her youngest son James (Tom Felton) sets his attention on Elizabeth. He sees her as mere ‘entertainment’ and fires off racist verbal tirades against Dido any chance he gets.
The film strikes a good balance between personal and political, as it appears each separate story strand cannot be sustained without its counterpoint. It combines the lush courting of a Jane Austen epic with the legal tousle of many engaging courtroom dramas, with the incredible Dido as its fulcrum. Gugu Mbatha-Raw delivers a powerful and commanding performance. She is magnetic and compelling to watch and she is ably supported by strong English character actors Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson.
After 12 Years A Slave, this may appear a banal and trite recollection of the era of slavery, but it is rather an engaging evocation of the period, and an important story of those who fought the legal battles to bring about slavery’s demise; all focused on the special figure of Dido, who’s image is immortalised for all to see.