Belle is a uniformly well-done drama, with a moral purpose at its heart. Gugu Mbatha-Raw has a lovely screen presence as Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the illegitimate daughter of an English naval officer and an African servant. As a child, Dido had become the ward of her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson, in one of his finest screen performances). Mansfield was the Lord Chief Justice of England, and master of Kenton House, where much of the film was set. The screenplay by Misan Sagay implies that the Mansfield family’s love for Dido would eventually inspire Lord Mansfield to render a verdict in a landmark legal case that would mark the beginning of the end of legalized slavery in England. Dido’s idyllic upbringing is shattered, as all involved knew it would be, when she finds as a young woman that, despite an inherited fortune from her father, she is disdained by upper-class English society. Various characters express revulsion for her mulatto race and her illegitimacy. What goes unsaid in this film is that Dido’s appearance was also an unwanted reminder of a discomforting reality for the era: she probably did not owe her existence to consensual relations.
The supporting cast reads like a Who’s Who of deservedly renowned actors: Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, James Norton, Tom Felton, Miranda Richardson, Alex Jennings, etc., all decked out in exquisite period costumes, with their scenes enhanced by a luscious score from composer Rachel Portman.
Best for last: Sam Reid as John Davinier, a vicar’s son, and an aspiring lawyer. Davinier is devoted to the anti-slavery movement, a subject upon which he bonds with Dido, to her family’s disapproval. Reid appears to have used a first-rate actor’s education to ascend to a performing technique that is all his own. Davinier is not afraid of the aristocrats who look down upon him, nor of the lifetime’s tribulations that an inter-racial marriage would bring into his life, nor of exposing the ruthless men who run a slave trade, because he is not afraid of his God. To render such a man believable, Reid gave Davinier’s face a most peculiar stillness, almost as if the muscles were made of stone. This was a risky trick, which could easily have implied a character’s dullness or an actor’s incompetence, but which Reid transformed into a startling revelation of this man’s spiritual depth and moral strength. Playing the pious common man in period dramas can be a daunting task for any actor; but Reid’s portrayal here offers one of life’s most important lessons, that genuinely virtuous people are the most fascinating, compelling and valuable creatures in the world. The irony in this stellar display of goodness is that the vicar’s son graciously yet relentlessly steals nearly every scene he is in. The highlight of this film for me was Davinier’s confrontation with Lord Mansfield over Dido, which director Amma Asante staged inside the Mansfield family carriage. This scenario is reminiscent in its nature and intent of the celebrated taxicab scene between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront; but the acting here is superior, the pace quicker, and the surroundings more claustrophobic and unnerving. When Reid verbally explodes his declaration of love for the heroine into Wilkinson’s contemptuous countenance, their collaborative brilliance creates a friction that feels strong enough to peel paint. I defy anyone who views this scene to say they think they will ever forget it. Coincidently, both Wilkinson and Reid have played Jane Tennison’s lovers in differing seasons of the Prime Suspect series. Compare Reid’s Davinier with his DI Bradfield in the Prime Suspect prequel: both men are the romantic heroes, yet these two characters have been rendered so differently, that their sole connecting thread is originality. A Sam Reid performance will not remind you of any other actor’s work—not even his own.