This film, named after its heroine, got released in Germany two days ago (titled with her complete name, "Dido Elizabeth Belle"), a few months at least after the British release, so I'm not sure whether it's still in AngloAmerican cinemas. If it is, though, or you can watch it on dvd: do so. Especially if you like a) (good) romantic costume drama, and b) movies with social awareness of the times they're set in, not to mention the big one, c)a movie with a black heroine.
These factors are rarely united. Belle
is based on someone who actually existed, Dido Elizabeth Belle
, a mixed race girl (black slave mother, white father), who as opposed as most children in her position ended up being raised by her father's white aristocratic family. There isn't much known about her, which gives the script lots of room, but one of the few known circumstances mentioned in every article I had read ahead of watching the movie was that the man who became her guardian, Lord Mansfield, in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice ruled in two important slavery cases which later became credited with paving the way to eventual abolition of slavery in Britain. Mind you, knowing this I was both curious and worried, worried that the movie would be solely his story, with Dido confined to being his motivation and having no agenda or personality of her own.
Which turned out not to be the case. Not only is Dido, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, assuredly the heroine of her own story, but one of the clever things the film does is to use narrative tropes familiar to the viewer from just about every Jane Austen adaption ever - the need to marry for economic reasons, status differences, various ill fitting suitors, hasty judgments, Mr. Right first sparring with the heroine, a cad revealed etc. - , and puts them in the (still) unusual context provided by Dido being who she is. And where she is, which is in between. She's regarded as enough of a family member so that she can't eat with the servants, but not enough to dine with the family if there are guests present. (Shared breakfasts sans guests are okay.) Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) can't imagine anyone worthy of his bloodline proposing to her because of her colour but won't accept anyone of lower status, so has her marked to follow the current elderly maiden aunt (played by Penelope Wilton, great as ever) as a glorified housekeeper. Because her father left her an inheritance, Dido has money, while the white cousin she was raised with, Elizabeth, has been disinherited by her
father in favour of his children from a second marriage and thus doesn't get proper offers in the marriage market, either.
The "finding a husband"/"is a husband worth finding?" trope provides just one of the subplots, though. Another is Dido coming to terms with who she is, and forging an identity that's not based solely on her white relations. A visual theme through the film is Dido looking at the pictures in the splendid Kenwood House, which do have the occasional black figure - always in a servant position and somewhere in the background. (Throughout the film, however, the (historical) double portrait of her and Elizabeth is created.) When Elizabeth has her London debut, there is a black servant in the town house, Mabel, and Dido is at first very uneasy with her before steeling herself to ask whether or not Mabel is a slave. When first told there aren't likely to be any marriage prospects and there can't be an official debut for her the way it is for Elizabeth she, in the privacy of her bedroom, claws at her face. But throughout the film, the case of the Zong massacre
is running, and Dido's growing identification with the slave victims of said massacre (who were drowned, all 142 of them, so the ship owners could cash in the insurance; the slaves had gotten sick and would have been sold at a lesser price than the insurance that was to be paid) becomes part of the identity she forges. At the end, she claims her mother as well as her father.
Sam Reid plays the idealistic John Davenier who wins her heart by supporting her in this quest. The movie's obligatory cad (interested in Elizabeth until he finds out she doesn't get an inheritance, leering at Dido) reminded me of someone, but I couldn't place him until the credits: it's Tom "Draco Malfoy" Felton in Georgian costume. But another attractive quality of the film is that it treats Dido's sisterly, supportive relationship with Elizabeth as equally important to her developing romantic relationship with Mr. Davenier. And, of course, there's the relationship with Lord Mansfield, who loves her like a father - but also has to work through his own bias.
Lastly: kudos to director Amma Assante for including black people other than Dido (and Mabel) in the London crowd scenes. Not a majority, of course, but enough to indicate that the big cities in England had at that point started to acquire (literally) a black and mixed race population.
In conclusion: a really enjoyable movie. And the next time a Daily Mail reader says you can't do British costume dramas and include actors of colour, just point them its way.