Belle is a sweet British period flick that highlights an event in the late nineteenth century that was way off my radar. Inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the film portrays the life of an illegitimate mixed-race woman who ultimately played a part in ending slavery in Great Britain.
Fathered by Admiral Sir John Lindsay and a Colonial islander, Dido comes to live in the grand opulence of British aristocracy after her mother dies. While her father loves her and delights in bringing his little daughter to his ancestral home, his family is less than pleased. His uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), is a prominent judge on the Supreme Court who married into affluence and has no intentions of ruining his reputation by accepting an illegitimate “mulatto” into his fold.
While his niece, Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), delights in having Dido as a companion and playmate, Lord Mansfield’s wife (Emily Watson) and spinster sister (Penelope Wilton) are equally convinced Dido’s dark complexion, curly hair, and unsavory roots will be the downfall of the family. But Sir Lindsay will not be swayed; he declares Dido his sole heir and then returns to his position as a naval officer. Dido is now frightened and alone, living in a beautiful yet hostile environment.
A classic “fish-out-of-water” tale, the audience has immediate sympathy for the main character whose fate is a certain doom. One wonders how this lovely, dark-skinned girl living amongst a sea of white prejudice will ever survive and live the life her father desired. But to her credit, her deep intellect and curious mind does not go unnoticed by Lord Mansfield, who connects with her soul in a profound way. While he initially comes across as cool and aloof, he soon warms to Dido and grows to love her as his own child.
At first, this movie looked like a typical Austenesque story where an undesirable, yet wealthy English girl has to overcome the obstacles of Victorian society to secure her true love. As expected, Dido grows into a lovely, young woman with all the refinement and accomplishments common to a lady of her position. But when she comes of age, she is suddenly deemed "less-than-worthy" to be presented to English society. The family pulls away from her, relegating her to the kitchen when guests arrive for dinner and assigning her the vocation of “housekeeper” after her aunt becomes too infirm to fulfill the job. Dido is devastated that even Lord Mansfield looks at her with different eyes just because of the color of her skin. There is a great scene where she sits before her vanity mirror, the object of perfect innocence and beauty but rejected by all those whom she loves. She beats herself and claws at her skin, wishing to rip the color away. It was heart-breaking to see.
As in most British period romances, fortune smiles on the protagonist, and in Dido’s case, she becomes an extremely wealthy heiress after her father’s death. Now the toast of London society, Dido catches the eye of several desirable suitors, one being the handsome Oliver Ashford (James Norton), son of a very ambitious Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson). The Ashfords are willing to overlook Dido’s skin color in exchange for her fortune, so plans are swiftly hatched to secure a favorable marriage. But as it turns out, Oliver’s evil brother, James (Tom Felton), is disgusted with the notion of her becoming connected to his family. He eyes Dido with distain, waiting for the opportune moment to force himself on her in an act of humiliation—very unusual in an Victorian era piece. Dido defends herself marvelously, warning Elizabeth to guard her heart from such an unscrupulous man.
The story picks up when the local vicar’s son, John Davinier (Sam Reid), arrives on the scene to apprentice under Lord Mansfield. Sparks fly when he meets Dido, and it is clear they are a good match for each other, both physically and intellectually. He is passionate and outspoken, particularly regarding a highly political case involving a disputed insurance claim for the murder of slaves on a slave-cargo ship. Because Lord Mansfield has the distinguished privilege of deciding the outcome of the case, Davinier uses his skill of argument and persuasion to convince his Lordship to deny the shipping company the insurance proceeds. To Davinier, the morality of insuring human lives and then callously tossing them overboard in exchange for insurance money is unconscionable. The growing number of abolitionists in England agrees, sparking anti-slavery protests throughout the city. Dido overhears some of their heated discussions and realizes she is in a unique position to influence the outcome of the case.
Dido secretly accompanies Davinier to some of his abolitionists meetings and can’t help falling in love with his vigor and passion. They have a romantic, soul connection that is sweet and very believable but untenable, given their circumstances. Succumbing to family pressure, Dido agrees to marry Oliver Ashford and settle down into a typical aristocratic life. And yet, like Queen Esther, she is haunted by the cries of her people who are deemed nothing other than property, subject to disposal at the whim of a ship captain. The extraordinary nature of her favorable circumstances speaks volumes, prompting her to take action.
** SPOILER ALERT **
The remainder of the movie concludes as one would expect. Dido breaks things off with Oliver and pledges her heart to Davinier. The Ashfords are appalled at her decision, but Dido is beyond caring. She chooses happiness and love over position and reputation. Lord Mansfield forbids her union with the poor, rebellious Davinier, but Dido stands her ground. Ironically, her strength and fortitude convict Lord Mansfield’s heart and appeal to his better judgment so that he ultimately rules against the shipping company. While a major political victory for the abolitionists, the decision is also a personal victory for Dido. For the first time in her life, she realizes Lord Mansfield’s unconditional love for her.
The final scene touches the heart in a profound way. Throughout the film, the viewer sees an artist painting a portrait of Dido and Elizabeth together, as commissioned by Lord Mansfield. When the picture is finally revealed, we see Dido, looking like a glorious, radiant angel against Elizabeth’s white, pasty appearance. In real life, the contrast between the two isn’t as great, but the filmmakers were making a point. To Lord Mansfield, Dido was a delicate, precious rose who was more special and dear to his heart than his white offspring.
If only the rest of the world could look past color and see into a person’s soul as he was able to do! The world would be a much better place!