This film has several factors that are compelling for me as a movie fan and were major factors in my wanting to see Belle upon its release.
- It is a period piece taking place in the 18th century in England.
- It is a fact-based docudrama.
- An essential element of the film is a major legal case surrounding the institution of slavery in England.
A film of this genre starring Tom Wilkinson is assured to be a quality feature.
All of the above were confirmed by this film, its costuming, commitment to the period, directing by Amma Asante, and its acting particularly Gugu Mbatha-Raw playing Belle; Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield and Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield.
Captain Sir John Lindsay falls in love with a black woman and they have a child together who is of mixed race. The child’s mother dies, but Captain Lindsay brings the child to his family’s estate and demands that she be raised as his child. He is off to war for the King and cannot be there for the child. Lord and Lady Mansfield agree to raise the child and she is befriended by her cousin Elizabeth who is white.
The story moves to their teen age years showing the unbreakable bond they have created. Life is complicated for Dido Belle, since she cannot be presented as a member of the family in the same way as her cousin Elizabeth. She is excluded from formal dinners and can only be shown in less formal settings to guests.
During this period, Lord Mansfield, as the Lord Chief Justice of England, must make a decision that will affect slavery in England in a profound way. The case involves a ship with slaves on it who are thrown overboard because, according to the ship’s captain, they were sick and would spread disease if allowed to land with the crew of the ship. The case hinges on whether this was true since they were chattel at the time, or whether they were killed for the insurance. That is why the insurance company brings the case to court and alleges that they were killed not for illness or disease, but only to collect the insurance.
Dido Belle considers Lord Mansfield to be her father and refers to him as such. Lady Mansfield is her mother and loves Dido as her daughter. These are the only parents she has ever known, once her father left her with Lord and Lady Mansfield.
The difficulty of raising a mulatto child and having to make the final decision in a legal case involving the institution of slavery is an intersection of issues handling with taste and elegance by the director.
This is a film well worth seeing for its entertainment value and its historical significance.