Belle wastes little time with setting up the meat of the story. There is only a short prologue showing Dido meeting her biological father and being handed off again; Mansfield, the judge, is irritated at first, but quickly grows to like the girl, as does her white cousin Elizabeth, also a ward of the childless Mansfield’s. Less than ten minutes after the film’s opening moments, a lovely match cut magically grows the two girls into young ladies, who display a naive interest in men even as the social rules for women of their position heavily restrict any contact between the two sexes.
Dido is no Rosa Parks, and Belle no Spartacus (1960). Because the film mainly sticks to the historical record, the main character can’t be a great public leader in the abolitionist movement, as maybe she would have been were she and the movie’s premise entirely fictional. The slavery question is part of the film, but more on the margins. What’s in the centre instead is a Jane-Austen-y story about good matches and courtships and engagements or almost-engagements and pining for, or being wooed by, the wrong man. The photography is lush, the costumes lovely to look at (if maybe less conservative cleavage-wise than they would have been in reality, was my initial reaction, but maybe that was wrong of me), the music (by Rachel Portman, familiar with period pieces and romances) beautiful and the language charmingly old-fashioned. The romantic portion of the film, in short, is pretty, if conventional.
Thankfully, Dido’s unique situation in life isn’t used for mere exoticism, but gives the drama its spark. One of the young men involved with “the lady mulatto” is John Davinier, briefly a pupil of Lord Mansfield’s in matters of law and ardent abolitionist (and even, possibly, a proto-feminist! *swoon*). Throughout the film, he tries to convince the chief justice that he should rule in an important case in such a way to emphasise the humanity of the victims (the case concerns a slave ship jettisoning its “cargo” for want of drinking water, though evidence suggests crueller motives at play), and Dido begins to support him. Her uncle is loath to let her know of such realities, but as she points out, she is confronted daily with prejudice because of her skin colour and is a free gentlewoman only thanks to several accidents. Davinier is a gentleman in word and deed, but not in official stature, and that’s where this subplot connects to the main part of the film, him not being a suitable husband for Dido and all. To the script’s credit, at least it doesn’t try to turn the obligatory other man of higher social standing into a complete racist and sexist. (Such a character does exist, but he’s a bit of a caricature and stays on the sidelines.)
It’s not just outsiders who regard Dido with distaste. While treated well by her uncle and his wife, they don’t quite treat her as an equal, either. For instance, she is not allowed to dine with the family when guests are present, and initially, only her cousin is supposed to be presented to eligible bachelors, with Dido told to resign herself to old-maid-hood. They also don’t at first understand why she would be upset about being painted together with her cousin. In a point the film unfortunately spells out explicitly instead of just letting the audience make the connection, Dido has seen paintings with black people in them before, and they’re always depicted as clearly subservient to their white masters. Her unease is unwarranted, but understandable.
Incidentally, if Miss Lindsay wasn’t a historical character, I would suggest that even her name is colonialist. It certainly isn’t African. Her three names are Dido (the mythical African Queen of Carthage, but a name invented by Europeans), Belle (Beauty, a stereotypical and shallow descriptive name), and Elizabeth (on the surface pointing to her white heritage, but it also suggests Elissa, another name for Dido of Carthage).
Another social criticism thread running through the film is the role of women in general, not just ones with a uniquely challenging appearance. As explicitly noted by Dido’s cousin-sister Elizabeth, females in the English society of the time could also be considered slaves at the mercy of men (would-be and actual husbands, and before that fathers or guardians). The question of female autonomy is explicated upon, but only with the bare minimum of characters and not particularly exhaustively. If the film had been longer, there would have been potential in a bigger rivalry between the two cousins, since the (I hope intentionally played as) bland Elizabeth is always overshadowed by Dido. But the movie is more interested in the more novel racial element, when it doesn’t concern itself with love triangles and pretty colours, that is.
The acting is fine overall, with particular stand-outs being the three leads and sort-of leads (Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the eponymous heroine, a weepy but convincing Sam Reid as Davinier, and Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield). Some liberties with the historical record are taken, mainly Davinier’s identity, some embellishments and quite a few chronological conflations and a bit of fudging. Nothing seems too out of place, though, an anachronistic kiss in full view of the public excepted. Ultimately, Belle is a perfectly enjoyable film that is both at times too “normal” and understated for its own various social messages to properly shine and in other sequences too on-the-nose with its themes.