Inspired by the 1779 painting of mixed-raced aristocrat Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) beside her white cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) with whom she was raised by her uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), Belle is an interesting look at a woman who grew up in lavish luxury but still searched long and hard for her true place both within her family and the wider world to whom she was seen as (at best) an outcast.
With no diary to draw directly from and only scattered reports of what the woman’s life would have been like under her uncle’s roof (such as not being allowed to dine with guests), screenwriter Misan Sagay certainly takes liberties with the story. At its best Belle is a strong character drama although it also devolves at several points into a time-period-specific romance novel. The rougher moments of Sagay’s tale are saved by the terrific performance of Gugu Mbatha-Raw who infuses the character with passion, strength, and a dogged determinedness which serves her well (but also gets her into spots of trouble).
With most of the movie set against her uncle’s deliberations on the landmark ruling of Somerset v Stewart which forever changed how England viewed the slave trade and practice of slavery, the movie jumps among the romantic trials of Dido, her suitors (James Norton, Sam Reid), social customs and constraints of the time, and her possible role in influencing her uncle’s deliberations. Some of these sequences work better than others, and some lend themselves better to the modern sensibilities Sagay and director Amma Asante choose to infuse into Dido’s character.
Mbatha-Raw, who before this was only known to me as Martha Jones’ sister on Doctor Who, is the stand-out of the film and easily worth the price of admission alone. Mbatha-Raw continues to elevate the script even when Asante struggles to keep the movie out of TV mini-series territory. Both Wilkinson and Penelope Wilton are used well in supporting roles who accept Dido out of familial responsibility to her father (Matthew Goode) but keep her out of love. For a young woman raised alongside Dido, I found Gadon’s Elizabeth to be a bit too one-dimensional, and even insipid at times, although she fares better than Tom Felton who once again is cast in the thankless role as the film’s villain. Apparently since surviving Hogwarts he’s been typecast as Generation Y’s William Zabka.
The film’s performances, particularly that of its terrific leading lady, help elevate what could have been easily fallen of a melodramatic cliff and been far harder to sit through. The historical events help given the story some much needed weight as the social maneuverings and romantic plot threads begin to wear thin. The choice to offer a To Kill a Mockingbird scene (you’ll know exactly what I mean when you see it), and trumpeting a modern take on romantic love, for a movie so set on showcasing and adhering to social customs and conventions of the time does seems a bit odd, but the messages of those themes blend well in terms of crafting an overall arc for Dido and her place in history (and that of the painting itself and why its depiction of Dido makes it as remarkable as the woman whose story is told here).