“Don’t be afraid. I’m here to take you to a good life -- a life you were born to.” That’s the opening line Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) speaks to a young girl of mixed race (Guga Mbatha-Raw) whose mother has died. She’s his illegitimate daughter, so he is taking possession of her. Because Lindsay, a Royal Navy Captain in the 1769 Colonial Empire, must return to duty, he takes the pretty young girl to Kenwood House to be raised by his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson).
Lindsay’s uncle seems both bewildered and astonished that his nephew has brought the girl to him and has begged him not only to take good care of her but also to love her as he himself would and to make sure she has all that’s due her. When asked her name, Lindsay replies “Dido Belle Lindsay.”
As Dido looks into her father’s eyes, a man she does not know, there’s a connection between the two -- and her father feels comfortable leaving her with the Mansfields. The household becomes a rumor mill, and soon villagers also know of the situation, which puts Lord Mansfield, the renowned legal genius and Lord Chief Justice of England, on the spot.
Fortunately for Dido, her half-cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) also resides in the house. The two girls are near the same age and become fast friends. Dido is such a gentle child she does not mind that Elizabeth can eat with the family in the dining room; but because of her color, Dido must eat in the kitchen.
Years pass, then according to society, it’s time for the girls to marry. Elizabeth draws quite a few prospects. However, when around her beautiful and alluring cousin, she is no match. Also, Elizabeth has no dowry, while Dido’s father has provided well for her. Legally, she’s due to inherit some of the Mansfield fortune. Although that occasionally becomes a problem between the girls, their bond appears unbreakable.
Soon to appear on scene are Lady Ashford's two sons James (Tom Felton) and Oliver (James Norton). While Oliver begins to court Dido and have feelings for her, his brother James is hostile and outraged that she’s part of the Mansfield household. At one point he becomes physically abusive to her. In time, Dido sees that it’s Lady Ashford pushing for her son’s reunion with Dido only because of her inheritance.
Not to worry, for Dido soon finds love with the vicar's son, John Davinier (Sam Reid). Not only does he truly love Dido and understand her situation, he’s a political activist who joins her in the fight for the abolition of slavery.
The fine cast handles this based-on-a-true-story movie very well. Mbatha-Raw totally fulfills every emotion Dido experiences. This excellent actress has appeared in 23 TV shows or movies and boasts another seven in production. Expect to see more of her in future films.
It’s always good to see Academy-Award nominated Tom Wilkinson on screen. He’s perfect as Lord Mansfield. I especially enjoyed the scene where Mansfield’s wife asks him if he loves Dido and he replies, “As though she were created of you and me.”
The real Dido Elizabeth Belle lived in 1700s England with the Mansfields. Lord Mansfield made history when his decision in the 1783 Zong case changed the course of slavery in the British Empire.
Belle is a well-produced, heartwarming and intriguing film.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated “PG” for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.