Gugu Mbatha-Raw takes the title role alongside Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson and Canada’s Sarah Gadon in the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate, bi-racial daughter of a Royal Navy admiral in 18th-century Britain.
Fans of English period drama are accustomed to its gorgeous settings, social graces, and sophisticated language. But what's often missing from those adaptations of Jane Austen or the Brontës is the institution at the foundation of that refined life: slavery. Austen wrote about how the slave trade made British gentry wealthy, but until now no film has brought both the glory and the contradictions of that life to the screen in such a powerful fashion.
In late eighteenth century England, Dido Elizabeth Belle is born to a white British admiral and a black Caribbean slave. The admiral's well-bred family is appalled, but when he returns to sea, custom dictates that they raise his child as an aristocrat. Britain's imposing Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) is both Dido's uncle and the family patriarch, and instructs this biracial young woman (Gugu Mbatha Raw) to respect both the law and the social codes of her station. She is a lady, but an embarrassment. How is she ever to marry?
Director Amma Asante found her inspiration for Belle in a true story, and she sets the plot in motion in sweeping, cinematic form. At the same time, she weaves in potent subplots: Dido's cousin Elizabeth (a pitch-perfect Sarah Gadon), raised in similar circumstances but untouched by racial discrimination; and a horrific, slave-trading case over which her powerful uncle must preside.
Belle is as beautiful and romantic as any
Austen adaptation, but with new insights
into its time. Both stirring and thought-provoking,
it offers all the pleasures of
period drama but returns to rest on Dido's
simple question: "How may I be too high in
rank to dine with the servants but too low
to dine with my family?"