Dido Belle must serve both as an embodiment of a terrible history and as a vessel of sentimental period romance.
"I am taking you to a good life, a life you were born to." And with that, the dashing Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), scoops up his illegitimate eight-year-old daughter Dido Elizabeth Belle (Lauren Julien-Box) and delivers her from a muddy hovel to Kenwood House in Hampstead. Here Lindsay's uncle, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), highest chief justice in England, and his wife (Emily Watson) are raising another young niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Cara Jenkins). Lindsay is so very sorry that he can't look after the girl himself but he's called to duty in the Royal Navy.
So far, so Shirley Temple. Except for one thing. As Lord Mansfield observes in the moment he first sees Dido, Lindsay has asked him to take her in without disclosing a fact that's rather crucial in 1769: the child is black.
Inspired by a true story for which precious few details are extant, Belle goes on to imagine how this situation might have played out. Crouching low to say his goodbye to his frightened, uprooted daughter, Lindsay insists that he loves her much as he loved her mother, a slave. Even as you might begin to wonder about that offscreen relationship, you're inundated by a whole movie's worth of clichés, beginning with a clumsy visual transition from the two children laughing and twirling on a vast lawn to their grown-up versions (Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido and Sarah Gadon as Bette) engaged in the same sort of Jane-Austen-Movie-style adorableness.
The obvious complications of the sisters' relationship is shaped by their equally exquisite dresses and imbalanced struggles with social formalities (Dido can't eat with the family or with the servants, because she "doesn't belong" in either place, exactly), and helped a bit when Dido happens to meet another family's black servant, Mabel (Bethan Mary-James), who offers a lesson in brushing her unruly black hair, while Bette looks on, vaguely pleased.
Despite her father's haplessly ignorant assurance, no one could have been born to this. Dido's experience takes a decided turn away from Bette's when she discovers a legal case concerning slaves and troubling their uncle (the film never shows Bette even being aware of this case). Dido's discovery is related to an historical fact, as the real Lord Mansfield did order a retrial in the case of Gregson v Gilbert, sent to his Court of King's Bench in 1783.
The case involved the slave ship Zong, whose captain drowned his cargo to collect insurance money. Mansfield's actual ruling preserved then current commercial law, allowing that slaves could be insured as cargo, and so, say, some might could be killed in the interest of saving other cargo, this captain's wholesale murder was suspect. This opinion was less morally robust than Belle suggests, but the film makes a broader point, that it did affect later cases, at least in part because of the publicity attending the case, generated by abolitionists, including Granville Sharp.
In the movie, Lord Mansfield's decision is itself affected by his relationship to Dido and, no small thing, her handsome white boyfriend, John Davinier (Sam Reid). They meet when John, the son of a vicar (a lowly status that makes for some complication in their romance, as she's an heiress, left £2000 annually by her father) and of course inherits her uncle's excellent social status. "I have been blessed with freedom twice over," she observes, but you know that's ironic. So too is the Mansfields' hope for Dido's marriage to Oliver (James Norton), elder son of the hoity-toity Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson). Inclined to upset his mealy-mouthed bully-bigot of a brother, James (Tom Felton), Oliver is willing to overlook what he terms the "unfortunate" circumstance of Dido's race in order to possess her exotic beauty.
It's not news that Belle tries so hard to make Dido the embodiment of terrible history while making heroes of John and Mansfield (see: Olaudah Equiano and William Wilberforce in Amazing Grace, or Elizabeth Keckley and Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln). But it is rather a contortion to make her embodiment simultaneously serve a sentimental period romance. This makes the requisite plot point of the couple's romance-threatening misunderstandings into questions of profound import, but the plot made of those points remains distressingly trite.
And so, Dido must negotiate not only Oliver's odious offer but also his ugly brother's assault. She must worry that Bette feels less desirable because she lacks Dido's fortune. And she must contend with the potential disapproval of her beloved uncle and aunt, people she so wants to please even as they have raised her to think that taking her meals alone is just what's expected of her. Much as Dido is an accomplished and insightful young woman -- if Bette plays piano adequately, Dido plays brilliantly; if Bette believes James is a worthy catch, Dido knows better pretty much instantly -- she's also in need of rescuing.
Thank goodness that John enters the scene as an idealist who wants to make the world a better place, not to mention an abolitionist who knows more about what she's experiencing than she can articulate when it comes to her odd dinnertime arrangements. Thank goodness too that John is utterly determined when it comes to arguing against slavery with everyone and everywhere, including a group of lawyers assembled within earshot of Mansfield. As the old man narrows his eyes and apparently begins to understand something he hasn't before -- after years of parenting Dido -- you might think of Paul Rudd in Clueless, and not only because of the Jane Austen connections. Such contrivances make the film familiar, distracting from the otherwise vivid discomfort of Dido's very existence.