This sensational new period drama is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, affectionately known as Dido, the mixed-race, illegitimate daughter of Royal Navy captain John Lindsay.
After her mother’s death, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is placed by Lindsay with his aristocratic uncle, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), and his wife, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson), who raise her with her cousin Elizabeth at Kenwood House in Hampstead Village.
Endowed with the privilege of English high society of the late 18th century, the cousins live under the same roof but in very different conditions. While Elizabeth is presented to a host of suitors, Dido is treated like family only until the outside world comes a-calling, at which point she is relegated to the parlour until after dinner.
The women of this high society are viewed as decoration, with their worthiness measured by their suitability for marriage. In pursuit of wives for her sons, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) states that true equality for a woman is “being with a man who respects her”. The sons dismiss Dido as an unworthy contender, yet she proves herself as someone not to be conquered or ignored, unhinging them with her authenticity.
Belle is set at the height of colonial trading, with Lord Mansfield, Britain’s chief justice, presiding over the real-life case where an English ship’s crew was accused of drowning 142 diseased slaves to claim insurance money. There is a dynamic exchange between the judge and his idealistic scholar, John Danivier (Sam Reid), who wants to make the world a better place. Wilkinson’s magnetic performance weaves boldly through the complexities and contradictions of his character, seeking balance on a tightrope of societal and legal expectations juxtaposed with controversy and a need for change.
Directed by Amma Asante with a screenplay by Misan Sagay, Belle is an epic tale of morality filled with rich, poignant and poetic language that shines light on injustice, social treachery and aristocratic hypocrisy. There are lessons of an educational and historical nature to be gained from this cinematic masterpiece, fuelled with the rebellion that became a seminal step in the abolition of slavery.
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