Seen: At the AMC/Loews at Boston Common.
Born out of wedlock in the 1760s to a black slave mother and a wealthy white ship captain, young Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) did not have a simple life to look forward to. When her mother died, her father (Matthew Goode) claimed her as his own and left her with her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), a highly influential judge in Britain, and his wife (Emily Watson). She was raised alongside their other ward, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), another niece around the same age. By the time they are teenagers, the cousins are as close as sisters, but each finds herself in an uncertain position- one social, one economic.
Though treated by her family as an equal, Dido is not permitted to sit at the main table when guests are dining (though she does join afterwards for conversation) due to her racial and ancestral difference. She does, however, receive a substantial inheritance from her deceased father, leaving her financially independent. Elizabeth’s appearance allows her more social freedom than Dido, but she has been cast off by her father and his new wife, and must endeavor to find a wealthy husband in order to achieve any kind of upward mobility. While they navigate the choppy waters of eighteenth-century aristocracy, Dido also becomes involved in a major case Lord Mansfield is presiding over, concerning a trader who drowned his slaves for insurance money. Moving past her own initial judgments due to his lower class status, she finds herself growing more and more attracted to a young abolitionist fighting in the case, John Davinier (Sam Reid), and secretly helps him by gaining information from Lord Mansfield.
As with many historical figures and events, I first learned of Dido Elizabeth Belle through art. I’d seen the painting of her and Elizabeth Murray in my art history books, a rare example of a Western eighteenth-century painting that depicts a person of color with dignity and equality. It’s a cheerful composition, and always made me smile, but I never looked much further than it for Dido’s story. Screenwriter Misan Sagay was also moved by the painting, and inspired to tell not just of Dido’s experiences, but a larger tale encompassing the period’s complex intersections of race, class, politics, and gender, accompanied by beautiful dresses and elaborate set decorations. And I’m really glad her film was made. It isn’t completely accurate to the real Dido’s biography, but Sagay intentionally structured the story to fit into a kind of Jane Austen-esque romance, thus opening it up to a broader audience than a straight-up historical film might have invited. It’s a smart move, and the script manages to weave together these seemingly disparate plotlines into a fairly cohesive narrative, ably showing how these issues are always interconnected anyway.
On paper Belle sounds a little over-complicated, but it is anchored by a gripping performance from star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who effortlessly communicates all the torment, rage, intelligence, pride, and playfulness wrapped up in the character. She is at times shy and romantic, at others bold and outspoken, ultimately a wonderfully multi-layered woman who fights to create a safe space for herself in uncertain surroundings. Mbatha-Raw is supported by a number of excellent British actors, including Tom Wilkinson as the conflicted Lord Mansfield (who in reality had presided over the landmark Somerset case years before), Miranda Richardson as the snooty Lady Ashford, Penelope Wilton as the candid spinster Lady Mary, and Sam Reid as the adorable optimist John Davinier (whom I’m guessing was somewhat inspired by abolitionist Granville Sharpe). I loved the pointed interactions of these different characters, many of whom maintain a blend of privilege as well as discrimination. Davinier is a white man, using his privilege to argue against the slave trade, but his lower economic status as the son of a rural vicar limits his social mobility and career prospects. Elizabeth is a white woman raised in wealth and status, but her lack of title and personal funds leaves her desperate for a husband who can support her (as she is not allowed to work or own property). Dido is of course held back in many ways by her race and unwed mother, but she enjoys wealth and status all the same due to her father’s support and family prominence.
I loved Belle, all around. Aside from its narrative complexities, it is beautifully shot, retaining all the grand mansion settings, fussy interiors, intricate gowns, and overwrought hairstyles we’ve come to expect from a good British period piece but also expressing the singular experiences of its title character through the careful positioning of the camera. There are many small, intimate moments that speak volumes- notably an interaction between Dido and a black female servant, who helps her with her wildly curly hair, so different than the thick blonde locks of Elizabeth. I thought the friendship between Dido and Elizabeth was interesting- truly they felt themselves sisters, but at times their racial and economic differences caused rifts in their relationship. I kind of wanted more of it, actually, though I recognize it’s not the focus of the film. No one thing is really the focus, except Dido herself, which is why Belle works so well. It does not set out to be any one thing, or tell any one message, but instead shares the fascinating experiences- some real, some fictionalized- of a truly exceptional woman who finds herself in uncommon circumstances.
Pair This Movie With: I went home and watched Mansfield Park, encouraged by the Jane Austen-y feel and the heroine’s similar class predicament as being sort of in-between in her status. If you’d prefer another British period romance that acknowledges issues of race, there’s Andrea Arnold’s version of Wuthering Heights.by