Loosely inspired by the true story of a mixed-race woman who mingled with the aristocracy of 18th-century England, Belle is a frock flick with a difference: a period drama with a modern touch, a romance with a feminist edge, a heritage film that casts new light on English heritage. In this costume drama something is actually going on beneath the bonnet.
The historical Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Royal Navy captain Sir John Lindsay and an African slave, and grew up at Kenwood House, near Hampstead, as a ward of Lindsay’s childless uncle, Lord Mansfield. Georgian England’s lord chief justice, Mansfield is in the history books because his key legal rulings paved the way towards the abolition of slavery. We know about his great niece because of a painting from 1779, formerly attributed to high-society portraitist Johann Zoffany, which depicts Dido alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, and uniquely for the era, shows the two women, black and white, on a near equal footing.
Class, race and gender
Inspired by this painting, director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay have concocted a highly engaging romantic drama whose plot revolves around the courtship and marriage intrigues typical of a Jane Austen adaptation while also probing issues of class, race and gender.
These emerge in the ambivalent position Dido, played with vivacity and intelligence by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, occupies at Kenwood. The enlightened Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) treat her lovingly, and she is companion and bosom friend to her cousin Bette (Sarah Gadon). Yet her status in the household is awkwardly ambiguous: too genteel to eat with the servants, she is barred by her colour and illegitimacy from dining with the family when guests are present.
Charismatic and expressive
All of which gives an unusual piquancy to Dido’s romantic prospects. Initially treated with disdain by Miranda Richardson’s snooty aristocrat, Lady Ashford, she becomes a worthy marriage prospect for Ashford’s son (James Norton) after her father leaves her a fortune but finds a truer soul mate in young lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid). An ardent abolitionist, it is he who apprises Dido of the facts of the controversial case on which her great-uncle is currently deliberating.
Asante and Sagay are being rather fanciful here with the real Dido’s biography, scanty though it is – she wasn’t an heiress and her future husband was a servant not a crusading lawyer. Far more plausible, though, is their contention that Dido’s presence in Lord Mansfield’s home had a progressive influence on his handling of the Zong case, which dealt with a slave ship crew who threw their cargo of 142 African slaves overboard and attempted to claim insurance as compensation for their loss.
As the story’s urgently entwined romantic and legal plots come to a head, viewers will be cheering. Yes, the screenplay takes licence with the facts and sometimes saddles the characters with clumsy exposition, but the narrative pleasures the film delivers are genuine, while Mbatha-Raw’s charismatic and expressive performance brings the issues it tackles vividly to life.
Certificate 12A. Runtime 104 mins. Director Amma Asante.