“I have been blessed with freedom twice over,” says Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) at one point in Belle, marvelling at her good luck. Dido’s first blessing came early in life, when her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), found her in a squalid orphanage and took her to be raised at her Uncle William Murray’s aristocratic estate. Dido, like her mother, is black, but bloodlines being bloodlines, William (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson), agree to raise her, despite their initial horror at the notion. This affords Dido many privileges, but it doesn’t put her on equal footing with those around her. Dido doesn’t sit with her family for dinner and when guests arrive, their thoughts and comments about her skin color are hardly kept silent.
Like Solomon Northup, then, Dido is an exceptional case whose “good luck” gives us perspective about the horrors of “normal life” for black people at the time. On the whole, though, Belle, which is based on a true story, is more Lincoln than 12 Years a Slave. It’s set far from plantations or slave ships of the time, among the English upper class, where decisions about slavery are being slowly deliberated, particularly by William, Lord Chief Justice of England, as he works on a case concerning a slave ship whose crew purposely drowned its sick slaves in order to recoup the insurance on them. Belle is concerned largely with intellectual horrors and portrays the fight against slavery rather neatly as a growing feeling of internal guilt that slowly turns society toward the light. The one scene meant to show us the darker side of racism is shot and edited so fitfully that it almost becomes unintelligible; the quick cuts and extreme close-ups hide the violence we’re supposed to be witnessing, as if there’s a fear about truly presenting it. Better to get back to the grand speeches about justice and human nature, the movie seems to say.
Beneath this disappointingly shallow treatment, though, Belle hides a less tidy reality, one that emerges from Dido’s second blessing: As a teenager, because she has no male relative to override her, she inherits her father’s fortune. This means that, unlike her cousin and best friend, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), Dido isn’t dependant on finding a husband who can support her, a fact that gives her a level of autonomy unheard of to most women. As Elizabeth points out to Dido on the way to meet yet another potential husband, without the ability to work or an inheritance, women are at the mercy of men: “We are but their property.”
When Belle deals with race, there’s no doubt that the characters will reach the correct conclusion, that justice and righteousness will prevail as surely as love and friendship do in a romantic comedy. In contrast, the problems of class and gender—which are skillfully intertwined by director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay to both underscore and conflict with Dido’s mistreatment due to the color of her skin—are talked about only briefly and seen largely in the background: in Dido’s aunt, who’s single and held in contempt as a result, and in the manner that upward mobility is only possible if someone from the higher echelons of society offers a serendipitous, charitable hand up. It’s not that the movie is particularly subtle about these issues; it merely leaves them unresolved.