My phone rang last Saturday, and I answered to hear the excited ramblings of my mother. "I found it!" she declared. She'd seen Belle (PG, 2014) on the big screen upon its release, and has been eagerly awaiting it's arrival in DVD form.
True stories are the best kind, in my opinion, and such is the case with Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804).
Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (portrayed brilliantly by the stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate - and negro - daughter of Sir Captain John Lindsay, an officer in the British Navy stationed in the West Indies. He brought her to live with his aunt and uncle the Lord and Lady Mansfield of Kenwood House (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), and his niece Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), whose mother had died and father abandoned her without a penny. As his blood, Captain Lindsay wished her to be brought up and live as a free gentlewoman, and his affection for her is apparent, though the two know each other for no more than a few hours. The color of Dido's skin surprises the Mansfield House, but they take her in, to their chagrin at first, but they grow to love her "as if she were created of [them]."
The Kenwood House tends to Dido with as much affection as deemed "appropriate" by societal "norms," although even having her in their house startled many. She was not permitted to join her family at dinner or formal gatherings, but her sister-cousin Elizabeth (Bette) is blind to their color differences, and the two love each other dearly.
Belle had that Pride and Prejudice feel to it at first, what with 1700s girlish conversations of suitors between Dido and Bette, but there is more to this story. Dido grew up sheltered from the hideous realities surrounding blacks and their enslavement. She knew slaves/servants existed, to be sure, but her knowledge of their plight was greatly limited, and she was understandably shocked to learn of them, and set out to assist young lawyer John Davinier in his case against slavery, namely the insurance of slaves as human cargo.
Lord Mansfield, I should mention, was also the Lord Chief Justice of England's highest court, and during Dido's young adult life, was deliberating this very case - known in history as The Zong Massacre, when around 140 slaves were jettisoned because of the shortage of water on the ship. This case gave impetus to the growing British abolitionist movement.
Belle is a beautiful movie, from the costumes (though cleavage bearing as was the style in those days) to the cast to the sets to the music and the story - the nobility of those willing to stand for truth.
Very little violent content - just a bit on the part of a brooding and spoiled heir who annoyed me greatly throughout the movie, James Ashford (Tom Felton), who has an obvious detest for Dido and her race, and grabs Dido at a picnic, suggesting that he could have his way with her if he wanted to.
It's a story about taking risks and sticking your neck out for what is right, no matter what the cost. After all, as Dido's father said, "What is right can never be impossible."
What is right can never be impossible. I'm a fan. I'd see it again. 3 out of 3.
Review by Iris Hanlin