By NATHAN LERNER
The historical drama, “Belle,” revolves around the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle. She was the product of a liaison between an African slave woman and Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a British Naval Captain, who was posted in the Caribbean.
The film offers an interesting counterpoint to “12 Years a Slave.” In that Oscar-winning vehicle, a well-educated, free black man was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Here, the dramatic trajectory is in the opposite direction with the protagonist being rescued from slavery and then raised in the lap of luxury.
Most of the details of Dido’s life remain enshrouded in obscurity. This gave director, Amma Asante (“A Way of Life”), and screenwriter, Misan Sagay (“Their Eyes Were Watching God”) considerable dramatic license in fashioning a biopic. They use this license to advantage to create a compelling, if speculative, narrative.
Following the death of Dido’s mother, Captain Lindsay is briefly reunited with his young daughter. In a major deviation from prevailing practice, Captain Lindsay acknowledged this illegitimate, biracial child as his daughter.
However, Captain Lindsay’s peripatetic career in the service of His Royal Majesty precludes him from personally raising Dido. To resolve this paternal dilemma, he prevails upon his closest relatives to raise Dido.
Captain Lindsay’s uncle is the Lord of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). As Lord High Justice of the Courts, Mansfield is regarded as one of the most powerful and influential men in all the realm, arguably second only to the King himself.
Captain Lindsay shows up at the grand Kenwood Manor with Dido, then pleads with Lord Mansfield and his wife (Emily Watson) to take Dido in. They are shocked to learn that she is not only a bastard, but a “mulatto” as well. As Lord Mansfield pointedly comments, “a detail you failed to share with us.” Initially, Lord Mansfield and his wife recoil at the prospect of including Dido as a member of the family. It would constitute a breach of prevailing social convention and potentially compromise Lord Mansfield’s exalted position.
However, Captain Lindsay’s impassioned pleading eventually overcomes their reservations. The Mansfields are already raising Dido’s half-cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother has died and father is abroad. They decide to take Dido in as a companion to Elizabeth. Living under the same roof and being the same age, the two young girls forge a strong bond.
As adults, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) remain close. They simultaneously come out into English society and are approached by male suitors seeking a marital partner. The film provides a vivid depiction of the use of marriage to enhance the social and financial status of a family.
In a nuanced portrayal by film newcomer, Mbatha-Raw, Dido exudes a radiant beauty. Her character is defined by her exotic Afrocentric features and coloring. Hailing from a prominent family, she is obviously well-educated and refined. However, she bears the stigma of being the daughter of a slave, who was born out of wedlock. Where will she fit into this hierarchical upper class society?
This plotline intersects with one about the Zong Appeal. The controversial case comes before Lord Mansfield in his judicial capacity as head of England’s Supreme Court. In this infamous incident, 142 disease-ridden, shackled African slaves be jettisoned overboard and drowned. Afterwards, the shipping company sought recompense from their insurers for the loss of their, “cargo.” Those familiar with English jurisprudence will already know the outcome. However, another brilliantly measured performance by Wilkinson generates plenty of dramatic tension as he agonizes over the case.
Belle is an excellent evocation of the anachronistic racial and gender attitudes of a bygone era, when slavery and the subjugation of women were well accepted. The film also serves as a reminder of how far we still have to go.
*** ½ PG-13 (for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images) 103 minutes
Nathan Lerner welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.