Like Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, Amma Asante’s Belle, with stately precision, examines slavery not just as some atrocious institution, but also a major influence on the laws and customs of a particular country. In Amistad, the focus was on the U.S. Supreme Court; in Belle, it’s on England’s Court of King’s Bench and the Kenwood House. The latter is where Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman of mixed race, was raised by her great-uncle William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), also the Lord Chief Justice of Kenwood House, in an aristocratic home.
There’s true conflict here, which after all is the essence of drama: In eighteenth-century England, Dido’s mixed-race background and illegitimacy were highly frowned upon; and being an accepted member of an upper-class household would not bode well for the reputation of this Chief Justice, who was also the 1st Earl of Mansfield. But being the daughter of Royal Navy Officer Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), Dido was considered family. Ultimately, William and his wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) would be turning away their own blood (as we know in the aristocracy, hereditariness is valued above all).
Along with this dilemma, double-standards gradually come into play that challenge the effectiveness of the Mansfield’s social mores. For one, it is revealed that Dido is too low of a status to have meals with her family when guests are in attendance yet at the same time is too high a status to eat with the help. It also ends up that she is the heiress to the Earl’s fortune and not her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Canadian actress Sarah Gadon).
Therefore, Dido is left with one heck of a dowry and that’s what leads to one of Belle’s most interesting points: as Dido tries to overcome racial prejudice and bias, she is still objectified as a “lady” destined to be handed off to a chosen man. This case concerns not her race but gender, as Elizabeth is also beholden to marry a man of high status and honour her family’s legacy (“we are but their property”, one of the characters says). Elizabeth is introduced to blond-haired rogue, James Ashford (Tom Felton, adapting his Draco Malfoy menace), who controls others with cruelty and cowardice, finishing almost all of his threats and aspersions with a petulant sneer.
Dido, meanwhile, strikes the attention of James’s brother Oliver (James Norton), a good man at heart who does not have much social or economic status to woe Dido with. The truth is Dido is interested in John Davinier (Sam Reid), a lawyer and son of a clergyman who William deems unfit for his great-niece. John is an intellectual, ahead of his time and vehemently against the system of slavery. When slaves are dumped from a ship in order to secure insurance compensation, John, with his pre-Wilberforce determination, uses this contentious issue as a catalyst for revolutionary change: ending slavery in all of England.
From here, Belle develops into a refined drama about the curious relationship between love and the law. How can an extreme emotion be a conduit for change in an institution that unwaveringly favours cold, “rational” law? That Belle is able to answer this question with an emotionally earned triumph is a testament to Asante’s direction, which carries a kind of social consciousness that draws upon subtle observations about the strict customs of an aristocratic home. This element adds flair and tension– albeit decorously – to the contained, often confrontational conversations that send the narrative in its somewhat predictable direction.
The performances are stellar all around, particularly Wilkinson who embodies William as a patriarch whose capacity for brilliant, progressive thinking has been eclipsed by his devotion to the old hat of the English courts. Mbatha-Raw is also effective with her understated poise and beauty, playing a pariah whose impressive will and endurance empowers herself and the right people around her. I preferred Mbatha-Raw’s mixed-race heroine to Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsy from 12 Years A Slave, the latter who became too much an object of cruelty in Steve McQueen’s visceral, but overrated slavery epic.
Dido’s experiences, on the other hand, are not simply an extension of the film director’s artistic intentions (Patsy was beaten constantly to hammer home McQueen’s obvious, merciless point that slavery was brutal). Instead, they reflect their own unique perspective: a quiet, keen detachment from the conventions of society she will eventually come to question. This stance infuses Belle with command, uplift, and purpose, making it another one of those “English period pieces” that thankfully throbs with a compelling pulse.