By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Three Beers) –
Dido Elizabeth Bell (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a mixed-race girl born to a slave mother and Admiral Sir John Lindsay in 18th century England. Left to be raised by her aunt and uncle, Dido is in a unique position in society due to her “mulatto” ancestry. Her black skin makes her a social pariah of sorts and yet as a member of one of the preeminent families in Britain, she is afforded much of the comforts and luxuries of nobility. Dido and her cousin Elizabeth Murray grow up together as if sisters, and are treated more or less as equals by family.
Upon coming of age, Dido and Elizabeth are excited to be introduced to the world as potential wives. Their uncle and aunt are skeptical about Dido’s ability to marry, but she soon finds herself being courted by two suitors, one from the high ranks of society, and the other young barrister John Davinier (Sam Reid). While Dido finds herself falling for Davinier, her family pressures her to marry into a better family. At the same time as this is occurring, Dido’s uncle (who is also the Lord Chief Justice of England) finds himself presiding over a case whose decision may affect the future of the slave trade in the British Empire.
The greatest danger faced by any period costume drama is that of falling too deeply into “masterpiece theater” territory, feeling too stuffy and superficial to function as a cinematic work. Director Amma Asante is to be credited for avoiding most of these pitfalls by emphasizing the smaller emotional moments over the grandeur and nostalgia too often present in this sort of filmmaking. In 1700s England, a married woman would have to surrender all her assets to her husband, ensuring her subservience. Asante cleverly uses this fact to draw ironic comparison between black slavery and the institution of marriage from the time.
Another wonderfully unique element of the film is the prevalence of paintings in the film featuring black figures, all of whom are seen with a white character standing over them in a dominant way. Even in images where the black character is not being mocked, he/she is meant to be pitied or at the very least seen as inferior. Meanwhile Dido and her cousin Elizabeth are having their own painting commissioned which features them in roughly equal stature, which was quite a cunning way to convey the way in which Dido was accepted within her family.
Actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a positively stellar performance as Dido. As the film progresses, Dido’s resolve to rise above her ancestry is tested, as she reacts to treatment both good and bad. Her subtle facial expressions and body language convey the pain she feels, even as she tries to hide it. The onscreen chemistry is simply electric between Dido and John Davinier. Director Asante wisely gives this romance just enough time to blossom, and handles it with enough charm that it is actually one of the film’s best elements. The historical events occurring in the background are given plenty of time as well, so this should satisfy more than just those looking for a date movie.
While the film mostly avoids Downton Abbey syndrome, there are still some remnants of soap opera present; embodied in the characters of the Ashford family, the wealthy socialites who court Dido for her money. Miranda Richardson in particular positively foams at the mouth with overwrought racism, and was clearly written into the script to give the film a “villain” character. It stands in stark contrast with the unique aspects of the rest of the story, and should have been downplayed (or excised altogether).
It is true that history really doesn’t have much written about Dido Elizabeth Belle, and the filmmakers therefore felt free to exercise artistic license. This doesn’t affect the film for the most part, but there are a few plot elements which feel inauthentic, such as Dido traveling unaccompanied around London in order to meet with Davinier in secret, and how she travels to court to watch her Uncle deliver a pivotal verdict on a history-changing slavery court case. While I can’t say for certain these didn’t happen in real life, I will say that they seem unlikely.
While it does fall into the melodrama category at times, Belle overcomes the dangers of a stuffy period drama with fantastic performances and genuine romantic chemistry set alongside real history.
Take a Drink: any time someone says something racist
Take a Drink: whenever there’s a legal discussion
Drink a Shot: any time a character drinks