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In Georgian England, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) stands alone. The daughter of a British naval officer and an African woman – both out of the picture (he off at sea, she dead) – she was raised to be a noblewoman by her uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). Her birth means she’s a woman of high status who can’t just marry any old commoner, but the colour of her skin means she will never attract a husband worthy of her rank – at least, not until her father’s death provides her with a sizable inheritance that’s very attractive to the various penniless second sons of England’s autocracy.
Romantically she’s torn between an earnest but poor lawyer (Sam Reid) and a nobleman after her inheritance (James Norton); meanwhile, a court case before Lord Mansfield examines the very idea of being able to insure slaves as “cargo” and threatens to tear down the commercial underpinnings of slavery itself.
Calling this ‘Jane Austin’s 12 Years a Slave’ pretty much sums up this film’s mix of romantic dilemma (the lawyer is even initially cold to Belle in the best Austin tradition) and examination of the evils of slavery, though Belle herself is much more noblewoman than slave here. While it doesn’t have the impact of either Slave or first-rate Austin, the production design is gorgeous and the legal drama that comes to dominate the film is compelling (if not exactly historically accurate).
Overall, the film is a little too straightforward and a little simplistic, but just by telling Belle’s (real life) story it shines a light on an aspect of the past that’s more than just black and white.
Written by Anthony Morris