Inspired by a painting that hangs in Scotland’s Scone Palace, Belle is a beautiful film that evokes a time and place out of a Jane Austen novel.
Dido Elizabeth Belle is the daughter of a rescued slave and a captain in the Royal Navy. Dido is placed into the care of her great-uncle and Britain’s Chief Justice at an early age, where she is raised alongside her cousin in a manner of sophistication befitting one of high social standing.
While her great-uncle presides over an appeal’s case involving a ship whose crew members threw its ill slaves overboard for purposes of an insurance claim, Dido makes the acquaintance of John Divinier, a clergyman’s son and outspoken critic of the Court for its acceptance of the slave trade through its silence in the Court’s rulings.
As Dido develops an affection for John, his influence conflicts with the nature of her upbringing and she begins to raise questions challenging her great-uncle on the morality of slavery.
Amma Asante has adroitly intertwined issues of race, gender, and class in telling this love story. Some of the film’s best moments were without any dialogue. Upon learning that she won’t be coming out to pursue a suitor to marry (her inheritance places her in a superior financial position to men of her color, yet the color of her skin makes her inferior to white men of her means), Dido withdraws to her bedroom and flails at her skin in solitude while seated in front of a grand mirror. In a separate scene, the Chief Justice suspects Dido acting against his wishes has been furtively meeting John Divinier, so her great-uncle conceals himself behind a staircase awaiting Dido’s arrival, after which the Chief Justice pushes open the front door catching the collaborative coachman by surprise. The expression of disapproval and disappointment exchanged is so well done that it is immediately understood by coachman and the audience.
Gugu Mbatha-raw mentioned during a Q&A that she was attracted to the role, because it wasn’t one of subservience. Its refreshing to see the story of a black woman set in 1700s Britain portrayed as a lady of grace.
The director’s talent and outstanding performances from a wonderful cast make Belle worth seeing over and over again.