Belle, a fictionalized account of the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a biracial woman in 18th century England at a time when slavery still existed in the British Empire, is a captivating and moving piece of entertainment. Dido is left by her father (Matthew Goode) with his uncle, the Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and aunt, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson). Despite their misgivings about Dido’s mixed race, she soon becomes a member of the household, and her cousin Elizabeth becomes her best friend.
As adults, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, wonderful) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, ditto) are both stuck. Though Dido inherits a sizable sum of money, she’s told no one will want to marry her because she’s black. Elizabeth has no dowry; she’s told she’s not worthy of marriage.
Amid all the to-ings and fro-ings and corseted heavy breathing, there are the excellent performances. Mbatha-Raw has perhaps the hardest job, conveying to the audience both Dido’s full comprehension of what’s going on around her (and wanting to scream about it) while being appropriately 18th century ladylike.
Whether Dido finds love is predictable, as is the outcome of a hugely influential court case about slavery over which Dido’s uncle presides. The filmmakers bend history to suit their drama, but that only makes sense. It’s the performances that keep Belle moving, and it’s a brisk, wistful journey.
Directed by Amma Asante
With Mbatha-Raw, Gadon and Wilkinson