Dido Belle is a sore thumb in the midst of upper class society in the late 1700s, and perhaps naturally, the film Belle which recounts her life is equally discernible within the world of the period drama.Amma Asante’s take on the 18th century period drama places its focus slightly wider than usual matrimonial troubles and uses her mixed race female protagonist as a way to explore not only the difficulties associated with gender or class but also race. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance as Dido Belle captures all aspects of life which her situation causes and in doing so marks herself out as one to watch.
The film is inspired by of the life of Dido Belle, the illegitimate and mixed race daughter of an admiral. Although Dido is acknowledged by her father, brought up within the privileged world of her uncle Lord Mansfield, and given a considerable inheritance, she is still restricted by the colour of skin. We get a brief overview of Dido’s childhood but the main focus of the plot is the outcome of the Zong case, which Lord Mansfield, as Lord Chief Justice has considerable input in.
Although the film heads towards this decision about the state of slavery as its climax, this doesn’t mean to say that it becomes one track minded. The contrast between the slaves killed on the Zong ship and this heiress who are at once connected and detached from each other creates a viewpoint which is neither as an oppressor or a comrade but something far more ambiguous. The race issues allow a fresh light on what seems to be a well-trodden era, as does the use of a woman with perhaps a higher social standing than expected as our way into the issue. What the film does very well is that although slavery becomes a very large part of what Belle explores, it does not become the sole idea within it. Indeed the discussions on slavery do not overshadow the other social issues of the time such as class and gender and the film plays a very careful balance between these social constructs and barriers recognising that there were many ways to lack freedom.
The film has wider ambitions in its thematic material, namely the ethical consequences of turning human life into property, and uses the example of the Zong as way to discuss this issue in every form it takes. Despite this heavy duty subject matter, the film does not dispense with the typical romantic notions of the genre. Instead it allows this to become another way to reflect on the topics under discussion. Overall it is only the plot which allows the film to do something different, other than that it is a standard period drama with an interesting focus point but a very enjoyable watch.