In 1779, an unknown artist painted a portrait of two women: Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray. The former was the mixed-race daughter of a British Navy captain and a slave woman, while the latter was her white cousin. Both were raised in the home of William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield and a well-respected judge who made a number of significant rulings over the course of his career. Little else is known about Dido's life beyond that, but the painting has nonetheless inspired numerous works of speculative art: a pair of plays, an opera, a short film, etc. All of those works have now been eclipsed (from a pop culture standpoint, anyway) by Amma Asante's Belle, a lush, classically-constructed period film that fills in the gaps of Dido Belle's life and fuses social issue drama with Austenian romance. The end result is moving and thoughtful, if a little stiff.
Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jupiter Ascending) occupies a rather unusual social position. She is a wealthy heiress and a beloved member of a well-respected household, but her mixed-race heritage prevents her from enjoying the full benefits of her social status. She isn't permitted to dine with her family when company is over, and is forced to endure the sneers and whispers of assorted visitors. She endures these indignities with grace, but knows that she is not being accorded the respect she deserves. Dido and her cousin/best friend Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, Dracula Untold) are currently seeking respectable suitors, but Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton and Emily Watson, Red Dragon) feel that Dido's chances of marrying a respectable gentleman are greatly reduced by the color of her skin.
What Lord and Lady Mansfield have failed to take into consideration is the power of financial incentive. Soon, Dido has attracted the attention of Oliver Ashford (James Norton, Rush), the son of a conniving grand dame (Miranda Richardson, Sleepy Hollow). At a glance, the marriage seems perfect: Oliver offers the social status Dido requires, while Dido offers the financial security Oliver requires. Unfortunately, Dido doesn't have any genuine feelings for Oliver, who is friendly but terminally dull. Instead, Dido finds herself pining after John Daviner (Sam Reid, The Railway Man), a fiery, progressive young man who also happens to be Lord Mansfield's apprentice.
You've seen this sort of thing before in Austen adaptations and elsewhere, and anyone who's ever seen a period drama about a British woman being forced to choose between the desires of her heart and the demands of society will have a pretty good idea of where things are headed. Even so, the racial element adds an intriguing factor to a familiar mix, as racist aristocrats of various sorts attempt to weigh the discomfort with setting aside their prejudices against the potential real-world gains of a relationship with Dido. Assante handles this material with refreshing nuance, allowing many of her characters varying degrees of goodness and bigotry without shoving them into easy categories. Lord Mansfield, for instance, seems to genuinely love Dido and care for her well-being, but that love isn't quite strong enough to force him to buck all social convention for the sake of making her feel truly accepted.
While the romantic drama plays out in the foreground, a legal drama percolates in the background. Lord Mansfield is tasked with making a decision on a controversial insurance claim. The owners of a slave ship threw their slaves overboard and are now attempting to paint this mass murder as a property loss. Now, Lord Mansfield must determine whether the slave owners killed their slaves purely for the sake of making a profit, and whether or not it's acceptable for human beings to be insured as property. Naturally, Lord Mansfield has various associates placing pressure on him from both sides: Dido and John appeal to his conscience, while others hastily remind him that he'll be better off if he doesn't rock the boat.
For much of its first hour, Belle is a well-acted but slightly stuffy period drama. Despite its unique elements, it occasionally feels like the sort of thing the BBC and PBS churn out when they're on autopilot: tasteful, handsomely-crafted and a little boring. However, the movie finds real passion as it moves into its second half, and I found myself surprised by how emotionally invested I was by the time the film's two sides come crashing together in the closing scenes. Mbatha-Raw's performance is an essential part of the movie's success, as she underplays her role until specific, crucial moments. When Mbatha-Raw permits Dido to fully express herself, it has a powerful effect. The fact that she's so natural and convincing in both this and the 21st century pop music melodrama Beyond the Lights is a testament to her range. Wilkinson turns in the movie's other key performance, and captures genuine complexity in his portrait of a man who knows deep down that there's a troubling conflict between what society tells him is just and what is actually just.
Belle isn't a great movie - too many early scenes feel conventional, the dialogue can be a little generic and the assorted actors playing Dido and Elizabeth's suitors are fairly bland – but it's a mostly satisfying fusion of two different types of period drama. Despite the film's numerous familiarities, the life it devotes itself to capturing is a unique and captivating one. If you like this sort of thing, you'll like this particular thing.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Year: 2014