The words 'inspired by an 18th century painting' never fill me with a huge amount of excitement. However, when the painting in question is of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed race girl alongside her white cousin, curiosity over the story of is at least partially piqued. In 1779, with the slave trade in full swing, a ‘woman of colour’ who is not represented as a slave is a highly unlikely subject for a work of art and Belle details the story behind how this young woman came to pose for the painting.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Dido, the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral (Matthew Goode) whose indiscretion with an African woman has produced an offspring that would cause a scandal in so-called civilised society. Despite this, he insists that Dido is not abandoned and instead takes the young Dido to be raised by his rich family. Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) accept Dido but she is denied basic privileges due to her skin colour, such as simply joining them at the dinner table. As she and her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) search for suitable male suitors, Lord Mansfield who is Lord Chief Justice must also face his biggest challenge in the courts when 132 diseased slaves are thrown overboard in order to collect an insurance payout.
Belle is an interesting attempt to balance the melodramatic period romance with a more politically minded drama. The Jane Austen crowd will lap up the love triangle and women torn between dashing suitors and villainous wretches who try their best to hide their true colours. Those feeling withdrawals from the triple whammy of Django Unchained, Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave can get stuck into the moral quandaries of the British slave trade and its barbaric actions. Though a greater focus on the drowning of the slaves, the subsequent court proceedings and the move towards the abolition of slavery might make for a more worthy drama, Belle still packs a great deal of anger with its focus on Dido and her forbidden loves.
Belle stumbles in its opening scenes despite what amounts to an excellent cameo appearance from Matthew Goode as the father loathe to leave his illegitimate child. Exposition and pointed dialogue feels forced and didactic but the film quickly comes to life once it skips forwards to Dido as a teen and Mbatha-Raw takes over in the role. Compared to countless black characters in this time period, Dido appears to have it easy. She has an inheritance to support her and she is cultured, beautiful and blessed to be brought up with a family that love her, even if they do treat her differently for her skin colour. Despite her blessings though, it is impossible not to feel for Dido as she attempts to rub and scratch at her skin in front of the mirror or when she eventually learns how to comb her hair properly from a black maid.
However, Belle is not all about race and it has just as much time to explore the position of women in the 18th century and the impossible predicaments they find themselves in. Marriage, inheritance, dowries and scheming behind the scenes all prevent these girls from living their own lives. It’s clear that it was not only slaves who were treated as property back in the old days and Dido and Elizabeth are flaunted about by their mothers and aunts like prizes for the taking.
Miranda Richardson is particularly merciless as the woman keen to get her sons into wealthy families. Her reactions to Dido's skin colour are almost humorous if they were not so vile. Tom (Draco Malfoy) Felton gets to be devilish and menacing in a small but memorable role and Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson make the most of characters that have interesting moralities to explore.
While the murder of the slaves is somewhat sidelined in favour of the life and love of Belle, the film ably balances both the personal and political. While it has nothing new to say about race and gender, it excels more at regarding the unfairness of life as a woman than as life as a black woman in the 18th century. While main character Belle is a beautiful mix of black and white, the film focuses far too much on the white faces that surround her and not nearly enough on the black people whose lives were destroyed by slavery.
Belle is released in UK cinemas on Friday 13th June.