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2014-06-27 13:16
What it's about:

Inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay, who was raised by her aristocratic great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, and his wife. Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her status disqualifies her from the traditions of noble social standing. While her cousin, Elizabeth, chases suitors for marriage, Belle is left on the sidelines wondering if she will ever find love. After meeting an idealistic young vicar’s son who’s bent on changing society, Belle gets help in shaping Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice, to end slavery in England.

What we thought:

Set in late 1700s aristocratic England this historical drama is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed race daughter of an admiral who was raised by her great uncle, Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfied (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife, played by Emily Watson.

We first meet Dido as a bright eyed adolescent unsure of herself being taken to her uncle’s house by a father who she only knew for a day. There she becomes a ‘companion’ for her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Fast forward and next we see the girls in their late teens. And from here the movie takes on a Jane Austen feel focusing strongly on marriage, society and inheritance.

Dido is a wealthy young orphan who is loved by her family but still has to dine separately when guests come over as it is not ‘proper’ for her to dine with her family, but also not with the servants because she is after all of noble blood. It is coming out season and while Elizabeth will have her official coming out in London society it has already been arranged that Dido will take over the reins from her spinster aunt at Kenwood.

In London things take a turn though as word of Dido’s wealth gets out making her a ‘suitable’ partner for the stuck up aristocrat Lady Ashford’s (Miranda Richardson) younger son Oliver (James Norton). And here a love triangle develops as Belle is quite taken by her uncle’s student, the son of a vicar,  a passionate young abolitionist lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid). Through him Belle becomes aware of herself as a black woman. There is a remarkable scene in the film where Elizabeth is being helped by one of the black servants at their home, Belle looks at her and it seems that for the first time she recognises a kinship with this woman.

While the love story and the examination of London society are  the bones of the film, its  significance is the political climate that the film was set in. Set at a time of legal significance Lord Mansfield presides over an important court case know as the Zong massacre in which an insurance company claimed for their loss of cargo after slaves were thrown overboard from a slave ship.  His judgement is an important one as it could change slave laws in Great Britain. For Mansfield the case becomes personal as he is after all the adoptive father of a mixed race girl.

The star of the show is Gugu Mbatha-Raw. I can’t help but feel a bit proud of her outstanding performance as she has South African roots. Her transformation throughout the film from wide-eyed innocent girl to self assured young woman is every woman’s story. She is captivating to watch and her expressive performance of her character brings to life the very hard issues tackled in the film.

Beautifully set the film does not however gloss over the issues it explores. In essence this is the story of the plight of all women whether rich or poor, black or white, slave or free who at the time were at the ‘mercy’ of society and had no voice.  

This cleverly disguised romance movie has much more to it than meets the eye.
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