Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mabatha-Raw) is the illegitimate mixed race daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). Belle's lineage affords her certain privileges, yet the colour of her skin prevents her from fully participating in the traditions of her social standing in 18th century England. Left to wonder if she will ever find love, Belle falls for an idealistic young vicar's son, John Davinier (Sam Reid) bent on change who, with her help, shapes Lord Mansfield's role as Lord Chief Justice to deliver a judgment in the infamous Zong slave ship case that begins the end of slavery in England. (Based on a true story)
Review by Louise Keller:
Conviction and principle are the powerful bullets of this gripping drama in which issues of racial discrimination, slavery and class are canvassed. Unlike the physical abuse portrayed in 12 Years A Slave, this 18th Century tale concentrates on the morality of intellectual aspects of slavery, the law and acceptable social practices at a time when women are considered to be men's possessions.
Buoyed by Rachel Portman's uplifting and distinctively beautiful score, Amma Asante's film is a delectable period piece with coming of age elements, romance and a potent through line that champions human rights. Based on a true story, Misan Sagay's screenplay weaves a rich and complex tale that explores the plight of an illegitimate young black woman whose entire existence is a contradiction in terms.
After concisely establishing the context in which Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) comes to the large Hampstead Village estate, where she is offered a life equal to that of her father's bloodline, we begin to understand the complexities of the situation. Her skin colour states she is too high in rank to dine with the servants yet too low to dine with family guests. The fact that her grandfather Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) yields power as the Lord Chief Justice seems to make her position even more complicated. Emily Watson is effective as the wife who reminds her husband of the passion for a cause that he once nurtured.
The irony that Dido acquires a dowry whereas her blond cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) with whom she has been raised, is penniless, changes the dynamic when it comes to the prospects of marriage. Social rank, wealth and reputation weave an intricate texture.
Miranda Richardson spits venom as the ambitious, snobby Lady Ashford, whose sons Oliver (James Norton) and James (Tom Felton) are contenders for the hand in marriage of the two cousins. The issue of race however, continues to hover incessantly. We sense the immediate attraction between Dido and the vicar's son, aspiring lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid), who is passionate about a case concerning drowned slaves - human cargo in an insurance claim.
Mbatha-Raw delivers a strong performance as Dido, whose moral convictions grow along with her confidence. The contrast between the scatty Elizabeth and the infinitely cultured Dido becomes increasingly pronounced as does her strength of character. The emotional crescendos involving Dido's journey and the climactic court case come together effectively, allowing all the tumultuous issues to intersect at one powerful moment. The key issue of the portrait for which Dido and Elizabeth pose and which acts as a piece of telling evidence, is interesting - especially as it in part was an inspiration for the telling of the story.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The strikingly good looking actress & director Amma Asante could herself have played the role of Dido, but I can't imagine her performance would have been more satisfying than that of the strikingly named (and also strikingly good looking) Gugu Mabatha-Raw. It is largely on her performance that the film relies, although not entirely. The rest of the superb cast fills out the various elements of the story, from a screenplay by Misan Sagay that's textured and complex but accessible and clear.
The complexity is generated naturally by the factual basis of the story, involving an illegitimate half caste girl, Dido, in the midst of a privileged family at a time when the odour of the slave trade was beginning to inflame the moral noses of men like aspiring lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid). The collision of the cause with the heartfelt romance between Dido and John gives the film all the elements it needs for a satisfying and informative movie.
Asante controls the tension well throughout the film, adding a thrilling element to both the romances that may or may not succeed as well as the politically and historically important backdrop. She retains the focus on Belle; it is her story, but her story cannot be separated from the larger picture of socio-political life around her. There are so many pressure points here, from race and privilege to the status of women in a society that forced them to find husbands for financial support, yet forbade them to seek work of their own. Well, only in the poverty stricken working class was that an option.
The Mansfields were not poverty stricken: they lived at Kenwood, the estate on what is now Hampstead Heath (where I played for a few years, in front of Kenwood). That is where they commissioned a painting of Belle and her cousin Elizabeth, played in the film by Sarah Gadon, the painting which inspired the filmmakers to research and tell this story.
It is a credit to Assant that she weaves together the story strands and the emotional arcs so powerfully, giving us insight and empathy as payoffs.
The women as much as the men play crucial roles in the story, indeed, the women wield considerable soft power, as when Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) quietly reminds her Chief Justice husband of his own desire to change the world for the better before he was so powerful he could. Her speech precipitated Mansfield's introspection and led to his milestone judgement, which began to tear down the notion of slavery as normal.
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CAST: Gugu Mabatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Alex Jennings, Tom Felton, James Norton, Penelope Wilton
PRODUCER: Damian Jones
DIRECTOR: Amma Asante
SCRIPT: Misan Sagay
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Ben Smithard
EDITOR: Victoria Boydell, Pia Di Ciaula
MUSIC: Rachel Portman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Simon Bowles
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 8, 2014