BELLE (PG) A September DVD Release


I am a self-proclaimed period film junkie, a Jane Austen repeat offender, and proud owner of a considerable period film collection. So, when I heard there was to be a movie about a mixed race girl brought up among the 18th Century English aristocracy, I was immediately on board.

Belle draws us into 1770’s England and recounts the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay - the illegitimate love-child of a naval admiral and a former African slave. She is rescued from poverty by her father and brought to live at the home of his family – one of the most illustrious in all of England. Her uncle is none other than William Murray, the First Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice of the Land. Called Dido, the little girl is raised in the highest echelons of society; she is educated, accomplished, beautiful, and an heiress. Among the stiff rigors and traditions of her social setting she is a novelty who is caught in a vacuum of being too-good-for-the-servants, but socially inferior to her white counterparts.

This cast was a veritable Who’s Who of British acting royalty; Oscar winner, Tom Wilkinson (Batman Begins), Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey), Emily Watson (Warhorse), and Miranda Richardson. The sheer joy of watching these artists perform together on screen was theatrical therapy. Wilkinson played the history making William Murray (Dido’s Great-Uncle), who courageously defies all the social conventions of the day by raising his bi-racial niece in his household like a daughter. As the Lord Chief Justice of England he is expected to make a landmark ruling affecting the slave trade. Yet, he struggles between his affection for Dido and his duty to the Bench. Miranda Richardson portrays social vulture Lady Ashford with all the cunning of a Wall Street stock broker as she plots to secure her second son in marriage to the wealthy, but unfortunately black heiress. Sam Reid (Hatfields & McCoys) played Dido’s love interest John Davinier, a fledgling abolitionist who is at odds with her uncle.

British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Dido), held her own admirably among so many screen veterans. She mesmerized my attention in every scene with a freshness that titillated with intensity, intelligence and grace. At first Dido is tolerated in the household, but she eventually wins a genuine place of affection in their hearts. Her journey to adulthood alters with the discovery that her secluded existence is worlds removed from the life experienced by others of her race. Her awakening catapults her towards making tough choices when faced with the brutal societal prejudices that are stacked against her because of her color and illegitimacy. Dido bravely rises to the occasion shedding the hypocrisy of her social world and refusing to cower behind societal artifice.  

Belle takes place in the 1760’s, a period when English Colonialism and the slave trade had peaked. It was a time when the rumblings of changing attitudes towards slavery were being felt - rumblings that eventually paved a road towards major changes. The film softly touches on the issues of class, illegitimacy, prejudice, slavery, and the way in which gently-born women were negotiated over like merchandise on the marriage mart.

This engaging film (inspired by a 250-year old painting hanging in Scone Palace in Scotland) was part history, part love story and part social commentary. As with most films of its kind liberties were taken with the story for entertainment value. Nevertheless, much of the history was well represented and served to keep the story line moving. Belle manages to weave in the authentic feel of a solid period drama, but with its own brand of authenticity. Each scene delighted with lavish costumes, extravagant palatial backdrops, and well placed characters. 

Admittedly, I've seen my fair share of period dramas - all fictional characters penned by Austen, Dickens or Gaskell. So this was doubly enjoyable, because nothing captures my imagination quite like a true story. It was clearly the original tale of an extraordinary woman, and her remarkable uncle plucked from the forgotten pages of history and brought to life for all to discover. And, for this period piece junkie Belle hit that sweet spot right between Downtown Abbey and Paradise that truly satisfied. 

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  1. Ah... Such a rich treasure to read your commentaries! I can hardly wait to rent this! How long is the movie?

  2. Thanks Amanda. It is almost 2 hours long.


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