Belle is yet another elegant British costume drama, though this one is a bit off the beaten track. It claims to be “based on a true story” but it is really a work of historical fiction, based on a portrait and not much more.
The story is about Dido Elisabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), born around 1761 as the daughter of an African slave and a British naval captain named John Lindsey. After her mother died he sent Dido to live in England with his uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England (Tom Wilkinson). Though childless, Murray was raising another niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). The two grew up almost like sisters.
Dido’s life was more privileged than any slave, indeed it was more privileged than that of most women in England at the time, but her position within her own family was decidedly ambiguous. She was not allowed to dine with the family when guests were present, but as a member of the gentry she was not allowed to dine with the servants either. Her marriage prospects seemed very uncertain. Family honor decreed that she could only marry a member of the gentry, but few English gentlemen would be interested in marrying a black woman.
In the movie Dido must choose between a young aristocrat (who wants her only for her money and family connections) and a poor but idealistic young lawyer (Sam Reid) who Lord Murray considers a quite unsuitable match.
There are a number of good performances here but Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of Lord Murray is the most interesting. He comes off as a man with decent instincts and great personal integrity, but rigidly committed to following the rules, both legal and social. He is not the sort who will try to overthrow the system, even when he dislikes how it works.
The historical Lord Murray is remembered for his rulings on two cases involving slavery–one of which is shown in the movie. He seems to have personally found the institution distasteful but he was committed to upholding it to the extent that the law required. It’s impossible to know how much his views were influenced by his relationship to Dido but it seems likely that this did have some effect.