Writer Misan Sagay, director Amma Asante, and actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw have created a film of exceptional understanding, honoring the life of the real-life woman who inspired the story with intelligence, sensitivity, and insight that illuminate her time and our own. Mbatha-Raw plays the title character, who must navigate her way across lines of gender, class, race, and legitimacy — in its legal and broader senses. Mbatha-Raw (“Larry Crowne”) is mesmerizing, a beautiful, thoughtful performance in a film that has all of the trappings of the best sumptuous costume dramas but has a story with unexpected contemporary meaning.
Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of a titled officer in the British navy and a West Indian slave woman. When her mother died, he brought his daughter to live with his uncle, Lord Mansfield, the chief judge of England (Tom Wilkinson), his wife (Emily Watson), and their other niece, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). The girls are raised like sisters but there are always distinctions. They eat together as a family if they are alone, but if there are guests, Dido is not permitted to eat with them but can join them in the parlor afterward. After her father’s death, Dido is an heiress with a respectable fortune while Elizabeth, a legitimate heiress, is cut off from her inheritance by her father’s second wife. As Dido and Elizabeth are introduced to society (Elizabeth formally, Dido does not “come out”), the eligible young men rate the women as shrewdly as Jane Austen characters. Does an impoverished young man of good breeding in need of money find Dido’s fortune sufficient to overcome her race and unmarried parents? If he does, will Dido have a choice in evaluating his proposal?
Meanwhile, a case is wending its way toward the judge that is of vital interest to Dido. Slaves being transported were jettisoned from a cargo ship. Are they to be seen as property or as people? Dido gets more information about the case from a fiery but poor young law student, risking his opportunity to study with the judge by communicating with her. As she learns more about her mother’s people and understands more about the kinds of restrictions she and Elizabeth face — some alike, some different, she begins to understand that some of those restrictions are freeing as well. If she cannot travel the usual path for young women in her society, she can learn to forge her own.
Parents should know that this movie includes discussions of legitimacy, mixed-race relationships, and slavery. There are references to the slaughter and mistreatment of slaves.
Family discussion: How many different distinctions did the family and the culture make between Elizabeth and Dido? Between the two women and the men around them?
If you like this, read more about the real story in Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice and watch “Amazing Grace” and “Amistad.”