Is human life a beautiful thing or merely a beastly existence? And what's the inherent worth of it in either case? Those are the questions at the heart of Belle, the true story of a mixed-race woman who finds herself at the center of cultural change in late 18th-century England.
Under normal circumstances, the illegitimate half-black, half-white offspring of a British soldier's dalliance would have enjoyed no protection or privilege in a society built on slavery. But Dido Elizabeth Belle, we learn, was the beneficiary of something remarkable: a father who loved her and was determined to provide for her.
Captain Sir John Lindsay only briefly sees his daughter before he is deployed overseas, never to be heard from again. But in that brief encounter, he dares to dream a beautiful future for his little girl: "I am here to take you to a good life," he tells her. "A life that you were born to."
So Lindsay deposits Dido into the guardianship of his uncle, Lord Mansfield. The lord and his lady are not only of aristocratic blood, he's also the Lord Chief Justice of England's highest court. He is, one observer declares, the second most powerful man in the British Empire.
Lord and Lady Mansfield tend to their niece with as much affection as decorum allows. (The fact that Dido is illegitimate means she rarely gets to eat publically with her adoptive family.) Growing up with Dido is another niece whom the Mansfields have essentially adopted, Elizabeth, whose father cast her off after her mother died, heartlessly denying her any share of his inheritance.
In contrast to Elizabeth's desperate situation, Dido is the beneficiary of her noble father's fortune, a sum large enough that she'll never want for anything nor have to grovel for a man's attention. And so the two cousins come of age together, longing for love and wondering what the future holds.
Dido simultaneously becomes aware that she's been sheltered from harsh realities faced by blacks bearing the brutal indignities of slavery. She soon meets John Davinier, a pastor's son studying law who's determined to reform the slave trade. She falls for him, but his bold, reformation-minded plans put him at odds with Dido's cautious, conservative uncle, who forbids the pair from seeing each other. (And then there are the two brothers who pursue Dido and Elizabeth, further complicating things.)
Lord Mansfield is meanwhile deliberating on a landmark case involving 132 slaves who were thrown overboard and drowned on a slave ship's voyage to England. The shipping company contends the action saved the captain and crew, who had allegedly run out of water. The insurance company, however, claims they could have been saved and refuses to pay the hefty claim.
As Mansfield considers each side's arguments, Dido seeks to sway his vacillating convictions about whether human beings should be treated as property … while she keeps sneaking off to spend time with the man her uncle has forbidden her to see, sometimes smuggling critical legal documents with her.
Belle superficially resembles many other British period pieces. Both Dido and Elizabeth spend a good deal of time navigating the mercurial romantic interests of a pair of brothers, James and Oliver Ashford, for instance. For his part, Oliver is big-hearted and open-minded in his pursuit of Dido even as his older brother is churlish and scheming in his brief, manipulative interest in Elizabeth—not to mention his menacing behavior toward Dido. Dido all the while does her best to comfort her penniless cousin, even promising Elizabeth a portion of her own inheritance to improve the girl's prospects.
That said, there's a lot more going on in Belle than just 1700s-style romantic intrigue. Dido is indeed interested in the noble, self-sacrificing young lawyer who's determined to combat slavery. But she's also interested in pursuing that goal herself, striving as much as she's able to persuade her powerful uncle to make the politically risky decision to find in favor of the insurers … and thus strike a blow against the idea that human beings can be bought and sold as property.
Lord Mansfield is deeply concerned about how such a ruling would influence his country's system of commerce (as are many other greedy folks seeking to manipulate him and preserve the brutally unjust status quo). Ever so slowly, however, he's convinced by the inescapable justness of Dido and John's cause. And his genuine love for this girl who has become, in essence, an adopted daughter, plays a big role in his changing thinking as well.
In the end he intones of his decision, "It is my opinion that the state of slavery is so odious a position that nothing can support it. Let justice be done though the heavens may fall."
John Davinier is repeatedly called a "son of a vicar," far from a compliment here. It's clear that the clergy are not held in high regard by some, and John has no interest in following in his father's pastoral footsteps. Still, at church we hear Scripture being read, including Romans 1:16's "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation." There are passing references to "the grace of God" and "judgment day." And while the film doesn't really connect the dots, it should be noted that the very idea of each and every human being having intrinsic worth comes from God.
Women wear the cleavage-baring dresses typical of the time. When James and Oliver see Dido for the first time, James comments crudely about Dido being the kind of woman one might "sample" in the "fields of the West Indies." John holds Dido in a tight embrace. After agreeing to marry, they kiss for the first time.
James' contempt for Dido is threateningly apparent when he roughly grabs her and insinuates that he could do whatever he wanted with her. Though he never makes a serious attempt to sexually assault her, he implies that it would be his prerogative if he wanted to do so. "How dare you!" Dido seethes. "With ease," James replies cunningly.
The fate of a cargo load of slaves is repeatedly described: They drowned after being tossed overboard while still chained together.
Crude or Profane Language
One "d‑‑n." Various characters carelessly exclaim "good lord" a half-dozen times. Mary sternly instructs Dido and Elizabeth to "refrain from shrieking like the blessed French."
Drug and Alcohol Content
People regularly drink wine at meals. Verbal reference is made to "crying drunks."
Other Negative Elements
James tells his younger brother that the thought of Oliver marrying Dido is "repulsive." Indeed, James' deep racism represents the contempt that most privileged, white Britons had for blacks in this time period.
A black house servant named Mabel lies to Lord Mansfield to cover up Dido's covert relationship with John. The movie invites us to view Dido's theft of the lord's legal documents as an act of courage rather than one of betrayal or breaking trust.
In some obvious ways, Belle is of a piece with classic romantic period dramas like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. There's definitely no shortage of drama here as Dido bumps up against cultural roadblocks at every turn, while Elizabeth finds herself facing the harsh reality that her lack of an inheritance painfully restricts her relational opportunities.
In other significant ways, however, Belle's main focus isn't really romance at all. Instead, Dido and John's risky commitment to combating slavery makes this story more akin to the 2007 film Amazing Grace, the tale of pioneering British antislavery crusader William Wilberforce. Like Wilberforce, Dido's uncle, Lord Mansfield, ultimately feels compelled to take a politically dangerous stand on behalf of justice for horrifically mistreated slaves, after being challenged, convicted and convinced by Dido and John.
On both sides of that literary divide, Belle delivers a deeply moving story about risk, change, and deeply felt familial and romantic love, along with courage, conviction, and compassion in the pursuit of dignity and justice.