Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was only a young girl when her mother passed away. Instead of being left orphaned and on the street, she was taken in by her father Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a man of considerably high standing. Going against societal norms of 18th century England, he claimed his mixed race, illigetimate daughter as his own, safeguarding her freedom and allowing her to claim what was rightfully hers. Belle is reviewed after the jump.
Dido was raised at Kenwood House, the home of Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice of the time, along with her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) who is of a similar age. While she may rightfully be a child of the Mansfield family, her background sees her relegated to more of an outsider at times – above the servants but not quite at the same level as the family. When Lord Mansfield is called to preside over an insurance case involving the possible murder of slaves on the ship Zong to commit insurance fraud, Dido’s eyes are opened to a whole world of injustice which she has been sheltered from. The case also brings John Davinier (Sam Reid) into Dido’s acquaintance, a vicar’s son who believes in respecting the lives of all people, regardless of their position in life.
Although formulaic in its structure, Belle offers a different perspective of high society in the 18th century. Living within the aristocracy but not entirely part of it, Dido is in a unique position and offers an interesting view of the “societal norms” and expectations of the time. The film itself is inspired by a painting of the real Dido Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Mansfield which was commissioned by Lord Mansfield in the late 18th century. Lord Mansfield’s ruling in the Zong case was extremely significant and had vast ramifications, most importantly being one of the first steps in the abolishment of slavery in England. I had never heard of this case before and found it both upsetting and fascinating. It’s a far weightier topic than the average costume drama touches on.
Dido is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who delivers an extremely accomplished performance. She has the grace of a high society lady, but the fire and the passion of someone who is not willing to leave questions unanswered. I enjoyed Tom Wilkinson’s performance, he managed to inject a lot of warmth into a character who would generally be more aloof. Tom Felton however, is awful as society figure James Ashford, overplaying every scowl and nasty comment. His character and that of his mother (played by Miranda Richardson) existed merely as a pressure point for Dido, and as a reminder that her place in society was not welcomed by all.
With exquisite production design and gorgeous costumes, Belle looks every inch the consummate period drama, but there is far more happening here than just a display of upper class opulence.
Director: Amma Asante
Writer(s): Misan Sagay
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson
Runtime: 104 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: May 8 2014; USA: May 2 2014