The issues of race, class, and gender in 18th century Britain are looked at in Amma Asante’s period drama Belle. Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate, bi-racial daughter of a Royal Navy admiral (Matthew Goode). She is left in the care of her uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who raises her, along with his other niece Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Even though Dido holds high social standing, she finds herself prejudiced by others, due to her race.
Dido becomes acquainted with a young lawyer named John Davinier (Sam Reid), who brings her attention to the high profile Zong case, in which slaves were kills by the captain of a slave ship. The case is being presided by Mansfield and has the power to change the state of slavery in England. The case results in Dido being much more conscience of her status as a black woman is a heavily racist society and fights to stand on equal ground with those around her.
I usually give or take period dramas and I didn’t really know what to think of Belle at first. In fact, it wasn’t really until the end of the film that I realized that the film is based on true events. While it is quite common knowledge how slavery was abolished in the United States, it is interesting to see how the seeds against slavery were planted in England, more than 80 years before Lincoln abolished it in the US.
Of course race isn’t the only issue the film tackles. There is a sideplot in the film, involving Dido’s cousin Elizabeth courting a wealthy suitor named James Ashford (Tom Felton). Sadly, Elizabeth gets no wealth from her absentee father, so she is looked down un-favourably without a dowry. Ironically, Dido recently became an heiress and starts being courted by Ashford’s brother Oliver (James Norton). However, Dido begins to feel attracted to John Davinier, who seems to love her for who she is.
I can say that the performances in the film are pretty decent all around. I could probably forgive Canadian actress Sarah Gadon for not quite nailing a British accent and also excuse Tom Felton’s somewhat small role for being not too different than his Draco Malfoy character from the Harry Potter films. In addition, Emily Watson does a good job as Lady Mansfield and Miranda Richardson absolutely steals the film as the absolutely wicked Lady Ashford.
Overall, while Belle takes a little while to get where it’s going, I found myself enjoying the film by the end.
8 | LIKED IT