Review by Jane Freebury
A portrait of the woman who inspired this film, the daughter of an English sea captain and a black woman held in slavery, was painted around 1780. The canvas hangs today in a Scottish castle. It isn’t any wonder that the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle has finally arrived on screen, only that it has taken quite so long to reach us. Here in this delicate, intelligent film she is brought to life by screenwriter Misan Sagay, director Amma Asante, and actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role.
By any measure Belle’s life story is fascinating. After her mother died, her father took her to live with his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson are perfect) in Hampstead. There she was raised as a gentlewoman and a companion to her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), also adopted. She is the other subject in the portrait that hangs in Scotland. Belle learned to speak French, to play musical instruments, and to pursue her education through reading, though not too adventurously.
As loving and well-meaning as her adoptive parents are, Belle finds she inhabits an awkward kind of social limbo. Too high in class to dine with the servants, and too low to dine with visitors, and far too exotic for some society matrons like Miranda Richardson’s Lady Ashford and their sons. Could she find a suitable husband?
It transpires that Belle is not without suitors, but she becomes a heiress on her father’s death at sea and does not necessarily need one. With a bit of tweaking by the filmmakers, she discovers she is free to marry as her heart desires, or follow in the footsteps of the snippy maiden aunt who resides with the Mansfield household. It seems a bit unlikely that Belle and the young man who takes her fancy would have spoken quite so frankly to each other in the late 18th century, but writer Sagay has scripted her characters to speak to modern sensibilities.
Themes of equality and emancipation extend to race as well. As Britain’s Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield has to review a decision that required insurance companies to pay compensation to the ‘Zong’, a vessel that claimed it had been necessity to throw chained slaves overboard on its way to ports in North America. Outrage over the atrocity helped get the abolitionist movement started.
One of the pleasures of the best of the Merchant Ivory period dramas was, besides meticulous attention to wardrobe and sets, the insights they offered, and of course the same is true for the Jane Austen adaptations. Delicate, intelligent and moving, Belle is a feast for the eyes and a nuanced slice of history.
In a capsule: Delicate, intelligent and moving period drama with contemporary relevance. A mixed-race woman raised within the English establishment during the early years of the anti-slavery movement.