With the Oscars ending with “12 Years A Slave” walking away with the Best Picture win, the concept of slavery has a new place in cinematic history. The exploration of that time period continues in “Belle,” which provides a whole new perspective on the fight to abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself, and is based on a true story that is now being discovered.
Dido Elizabeth Belle is raised under the roof of the first Earl of Mansfield, the Chief Justice of England, and she carries mixed blood. During this time, having a slave mother would have resulted in Dido becoming a slave herself, but her father ensured her freedom with his uncle, and a life out of reach of many others. She is raised as her cousins, Elizabeth Murray, equal, both in education and attire. When the season comes around, and it is time for the girls to be introduced to society, Dido is left wondering if she will be left to a spinster’s life, due to her unique status as both an heiress and a black woman in 1700s England.
At the heart of it, “Belle” is a historical romance of the best kind. More than just boy-meets-girl, there are stakes to the relationship between Dido and John Davinier, an aspiring lawman. The romance is between two strong characters, whose road to romance is not the smoothest, or the most accepted. When Dido takes her situation into her own hands, she helps to shape the course of English politics, however unintentional.
At the same time, Lord Mansfield is due to weigh on a case involving fraud and murdered slaves. If he rules in favor of the captain and the insurance claim, he further entrenches England in the slave trade. However, if he rules in favor of the insurer in denying the claim, the course of England will be changed forever, and his relationship with Dido might prove to be the push he needs to set a new course.
The film beautifully entwines both the trivial social situations and the serious political intrigue, with performances from the entire cast on point. The standout is Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Dido, with both a spine and stars in her eyes. She marches through the film demanding we acknowledge this woman and her story, which is incredibly moving as it plays out and draws to a conclusion.
I’m giving “Belle” an A. This is no summer movie grade, for if this movie had come out during the acknowledged award season, it would have warranted the same grade against better-made competition. I sincerely hope to see “Belle” making the rounds with the awards shows, and for it to be as big a draw as “Godzilla” for the crowds looking for something a bit more real and heartwarming. Loose allowances were made due to the unfamiliarity of the story, but it seems to hew close to the known facts, to its benefit. “Belle” is PG for thematic elements, some smoking and language.