The aforementioned character is Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate, mixed race daughter of an Admiral (Matthew Goode), who is left with her aristocratic great uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). Though reluctant at first, eventually the esteemed judge agrees to raise the young girl as his own flesh and blood, though as she grows older she becomes more aware of the restrictions in place, and repressive nature of her upbringing. Such tensions come to a head when the Lord is involved in a case that could be instrumental in the abolition of British slavery – a case that Dido’s new love interest, and budding lawyer, John Davinier (Sam Reid), is fervently fighting for.
First and foremost, it’s intriguing to explore what it was like to be mixed race in such volatile surroundings – a notion somewhat unexplored in cinema. We have seen the mistreatment of the black community in recent productions such as The Butler and 12 Years a Slave – yet rarely have we explored the repercussions of being mixed race in such circumstances, as we witness events from the perspective of a girl living a more affluent and privileged life, and still facing the discrimination within. However this film isn’t quite as powerful as those mentioned above. For example, there is a moment when housemaid Mabel (Bethan Mary-James) first encounters Dido, and given the latter’s social status being unusually high for somebody who isn’t white – the maid seems proud, and elated, producing a beaming smile. Whereas if you take 12 Years a Slave, we have a similar moment in a shop– and yet in that instance, the slave looks up bewildered, bemused and almost as if showing disdain for somebody else of the same colour to be in such a privileged position.
This is symbolic of a film that packed more of an emotional punch, and perhaps given Asante’s inclination to stay archetypal of the genre, leads to a more watered-down, mainstream endeavour. It may seem unfair to compare this to such an accomplished, breathtaking film – but it’s worth noting that Steve McQueen’s endeavour was a raw study of human emotions that revelled in being naturalistic, and Belle, while still poignant and profound, is a less nuanced piece. Though it’s by no means simplistic – and deviates away from being your typical, “brave white person saves helpless black community” piece, which we have seen before. When big decisions are made and sympathy is shown towards our titular protagonist, it’s often displayed with a begrudging reluctance.
Meanwhile, the leading performance by Mbatha-Raw is simply engrossing, as she carries that skill not many actors do – in having an ability to just gracefully control the viewer’s attention, without the need for much dialogue. Dido is a subtle creation, not reliant on grandiose set-pieces to make a point, and it’s vital the actress remains so absorbing, allowing us to be emotionally immersed in this tale, in spite of the several, conflicting themes at play. There’s a distinct duality in regards to the narrative, as we mix between Dido’s romantic endeavour, with the implicative court case that’s ongoing. Asante manages to find a middle ground between the two, giving us a flavour for the more intimate, romantic elements, with the severity and importance of the political context also prevalent.
Talking of political context, there’s a discomforting feeling that ends this piece – as while the overtly cinematic, idealistic romance brings about a feeling of hope – knowing that the story of Solomon Northup happened almost 100 years later on, albeit it in another country – sadly deems this tale somewhat devoid of a truly happy ending.