The slave trade between England and Africa in the 1700s and before was a nasty, deplorable business that equated human beings to cargo in the eyes of the slavers and the rich, aristocratic nation that earned its money from this trade. The Zong case of 1781 involved the massacre of 130 slaves who were thrown overboard when water rations became slim. The insurers refused to pay for the massacred slaves and three court cases were fought that eventually changed the law and rendered the slave trade a non-viable means of making money in the British Isles.
Belle takes this incredible true story and tells it through the eyes of a woman named Dido Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a “mulatto” woman who is taken by her father to live with her extended family in Hampstead outside of London. William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice, and his wife Elizabeth (Emily Watson) raise Dido as their own alongside her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Dido and Elizabeth are inseparable, but when they come of age and poised to go out into society, Dido is held back because she is too high in rank to dine with the servants but too “low” in rank to dine with her family when a company is over. Basically, she is held back because of the color of her skin.
Despite this, Dido is accomplished and brilliant and uses her wits to help John Davinier (Sam Reid) try to convince Murray to rule against the slavers which would eventually bring about the Abolition of Slave Trade Act of 1806. Of course, Dido and John fall in love along the way which is reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel and it’s glorious.
Everything about this film is beautiful. While I will admit that Amma Asante’s directing takes no risks, the costuming is sumptuous and Mbatha-Raw’s performance is brilliant. This was Mbatha-Raw’s first starring role and for her to hold her own against Watson and Wilkinson as well as a Draco Malfoy adjacent Tom Felton, is refreshing and empowering to watch.
Of course, both Wilkinson and Watson get some meat to chew on, but the bulk lands on Mbatha-Raw as Dido works furiously to figure out her place in the world as a woman, an heiress, and a person of color in a world that would rather see her dead in the sea or as a servant than as a woman of position and power and rank. Dido is such an interesting character and much of her story here is fabricated because of the lack of information we have about the real Dido Lindsay. Despite that, it’s impossible to look away from Mbatha-Raw’s performance and the nuance she gives her character.
The only thing I was disappointed in was the fact that poor Felton is saddled with a one-dimensional, racist, character that, as I’ve said, is so Draco Malfoy adjacent, that James Ashford, his character, might as well be a long-distance relative of the Malfoys. Felton is better than that.
Other than that, this is a solid debut for Asante and only proved, early on, what a powerful performer Mbatha-Raw is.