Belle takes real life characters, switches their stories around a bit, and puts them into a Merchant Ivoryish version of a Jane Austen book, if Jane Austen had written a novel about race, and does so compellingly and satisfyingly.
Dido Elizabeth Belle was the mixed-race daughter of a wealthy, titled British soldier in the late 1700s, when Britain was still very much involved in the slave trade. After the death of her mother, she is brought to the sumptuous country estate of her Great Uncle and Great Aunt to be raised, alongside her cousin Elizabeth. The girls grow up together as best friends and almost equals, though Dido doesn’t eat dinner with the others when guests are present. After the death of her father leaves her a sizable inheritance, she and Elizabeth are put into the Austenesque situation of needing to either find themselves husbands, or resign themselves to genteel spinsterhood. Elizabeth has the advantage of being white and from a titled family, but the disadvantage of being poor, as her father has other children with his new life, and is not leaving any money to her. Dido has the advantage of money, but the disadvantage of being ‘mulatto’. Because she is both mixed-race and a Lady (or would be if she were not illegitimate), she is unlikely to make a good match. Those men whom a Lady with money should attract will not be willing to marry a mulatto. Those men who would be willing to marry her are beneath her station in life. Such are the worries of the Great Uncle and Great Aunt, who resign themselves early on to her never marrying.
The Great Uncle to the girls happens to be The Lord Chief Justice in England, and is deliberating on how to decide on a case which may be the beginning of the end of the slave trade in England. The case is the real life story of the slave ship Zorn, a case in which the captain and crew drowned all of the slaves, and then claimed restitution for the loss of ‘cargo’ from the insurance company.
The film was compelling throughout, the scenery and costumes gorgeous, the characters well acted and real. I enjoyed the film, inspired by the real-life painting of the cousins above, very much indeed. It was a lovely way to spend my Mother’s Day.