Belle
Director: Amma Asante
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson
104 mins; PG; KRS Releasing Ltd

A 1779 painting of two women (which is unsigned but believed to be by German artist Johann Zoffany) hangs at Scone Palace in Scotland. The painting depicts a young black woman with a turban, holding some fruit, standing alongside a young white woman.

The black woman is Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed–race daughter of an 18th-century Royal Navy admiral, and the woman she is with is her cousin Elizabeth.

The portrait is startling not only because it effortlessly captures the obvious affection between the two women, but it also portrays the equality between them in their relationship despite their skin colour. This was something unheard of at the time.

The girls were raised together by their aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield the Lord Chief Justice of England, and his wife after the death at sea of Dido’s father. Although Dido’s standing in society is unquestioned, the colour of her skin prevents her from enjoying certain privileges.

As she grows into young adulthood aware that the prejudices against her may prevent her from getting married, society around her is witnessing the rumbles of change. For as Lord Mansfield prepares to preside over a court trial which may lead to the abolishment of slavery, a fight is also being waged by a young vicar’s son who embarks on a friendship with Dido.

Inspired by the painting, Belle tells the story of this incredible young woman. The film, directed by Amma Asante from a screenplay by Misan Sagay, has all the trappings of a typical British period film – outstanding production and costume design, a scholarly script and a solid ensemble including some of Britain’s acting stalwarts; yet this is more than just a biographical piece.

It is a valid account of a fascinating piece of history. In 1781, 142 African slaves on the slave ship Zong were thrown overboard to their deaths by the ship’s crew. When the ship’s insurer refused to pay 30 pounds each for the dead slaves (then considered under the law solely as property), the owners took the insurer to court, opening a case which would prove a seminal point in the history of slavery in England.

The screenplay exposits the background to the story perfectly, bringing to light the atro­cities faced by slaves as seen by the compassionate few in high society who felt the responsibility to act against it, even though the end of slavery threatened the economic stability across the nation.

A performance that is equal parts vulnerability and inner strength

While indignant in its stance, the film is never preachy, instead presenting a strong sense of morality that is difficult to ignore with-out resorting to unnecessary emotional histrionics, focussing instead on the characters.

Relative unknown Gugu Mbatha-Raw brings Dido to life in a performance that is equal parts vulnerability and inner strength. It is a dream of a part, and the actress captures the complexities of a woman torn between two worlds; to both of which she rightly belongs.

Tom Wilkinson brings the expected amount of wisdom and gravitas to the role of Lord Mansfield. He is a loving family man who battled constantly between society’s expectations and his duties as a guardian to a young woman he loves as if she were his own daughter.

The cast is completed by Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield, Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton as Lady Mary Murray, Sarah Gadon as Dido’s cousin Elizabeth and Sam Reid as the idealist young vicar John Davinier.