Considering the era in which it was created, the portrait now hanging in Scone Palace, Perthshire, ancestral seat of the Earls of Mansfield, illustrates a remarkable scene. In it, two women of the Mansfield lineage are displayed standing proudly together, on the right Lady Elizabeth Murray, on the left her cousin, Miss Dido Belle Lindsay. Miss Lindsay, holding a quietly vivacious look in her eyes, seems, almost, to be moving, leaning forward slightly, body turned away from the anonymous artist. She is also black.
The painting, dating from 1779, would be a fascinating one even in the absence of Belle, Amma Asante’s handsome sophomore feature, but with its release, the inspiring likeness invokes a near mystical power. In truth, little is known about this exotic young woman and Asante’s film — bearing all the hallmarks of a luscious, beautifully scored period drama — attempts to fill in the considerable gaps. Stumbling on occasion, it retains a gentile shape thanks to predictably strong performances and a compelling glimpse at the subversion of the British class, and caste, system at the height of its 18th-century imperial pomp.
As the title suggests, Dido Belle Lindsay is at the heart of it all. An illegitimate “mulatto" child born in the West Indies to an African slave and an English sailor, she is rescued from poverty at a young age, in the wake of her mother’s death, by her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). With a crucial naval voyage pending, he entrusts her into the care of his uncle, Tom Wilkinson’s upright William Murray, Lord Chief Justice and 1st Earl of Mansfield.
Entitled to an upbringing in keeping with her bloodline, Dido is installed in Murray’s loving household as a high-ranking family member and companion to his other great-niece, Elizabeth. Refined and educated, Dido, nevertheless, occupies a strangely anomalous position within the otherwise tightly controlled hierarchy, her low birth and colour render certain things impossible — dining with guests being one notable taboo. At the same time, her heritage dictates that aristocratic surroundings are far from inappropriate.
In the title role, Gugu Mbatha-Raw handles her tricky character with accomplished confidence, drawing on the tensions inherent to the social mores of the age and conveying profound charm in what could be an otherwise bland role. She ably holds up under the weightier issues at hand as her awakening coincides with the seminal Zong case, an insurance fraud appeal on which Wilkinson’s enlightened jurist is set to rule. Centered around the deliberate drowning of human cargo by a slave ship’s crew, the court action is at the vanguard of the battle against slavery.
Granted, such abstract legalities are fairly mild in the context of similarly horrific events brazenly depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad or Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it is fitting that they remain mere stories here. Dido’s world, regardless of her background, is a delicate one, unspoiled by vulgar realities, though she becomes enchanted, nevertheless, by the noble ideals of the abolitionist movement.
Whatever the historical accuracy of the portrayal, it is through the intertwining themes of race and patriarchy that Asante’s film excels to an intriguing degree. That Dido should feel burdened by the shade of her skin is sadly inevitable given the fact that racial sensitivities were minimal at best and multiculturalism non-existent. Her subtle struggles with an identity few understand or accept — whether it is properly brushing her wild hair or tearfully clawing at herself in a moment of despair — are affecting, finely observed flashes of intimacy in a film prone to exploring broader issues.
She recognises, too, the significance of the famous portrait, commissioned by Murray, in which she is to stand as an equal with her white relative. Early on, Asante notes the young Dido’s fascination with those august paintings in the gallery of her new home. Figures who look very much like she does are featured therein, each peripheral and supplicant. Asked to pose, Mbatha-Raw captures the confused gratitude of gaining prominence, of being awarded her birthright.
Indeed, Asante finds interesting parallels between the slave trade, a mighty edifice propping up the wealth of an empire, and a society in which cousin Elizabeth, played with brio by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, requires a marriage for advancement and male-dominated financial security. “We are their property,” she whispers mournfully. It is with comparable insight that Dido realises the enviable position her own unusual circumstances, and an unexpected inheritance, have afforded her: "I have been blessed with freedom twice over.” These twists of fate grant empowering autonomy beyond most peers of her sex.
Nuance does not, unfortunately, run throughout. Miranda Richardson and Tom Felton form a faintly cartoonish double act as a mother and son seeking to shore up their family’s legacy. Richardson is a wonderful actress yet is allowed to do little more than scheme and offer casual prejudice, while Felton appears determined to carve out an archly villainous post-Hogwarts niche. This preening brute wastes more effort scowling at Dido than entertaining the misplaced affections of the exquisite Elizabeth and his sneering racism is both gratuitous and completely without discernible cause.
In Sam Reid’s John Davinier, the film has its crusading lawyer and Dido her immediately obvious love interest. Their relationship is overly fraught, however, and potentially irritating, every tremulous conversation, from the first to the last, laced with wholesome respect and admiration, each exchange conducted on the verge of tears. In the eagerness to underscore Davinier’s supreme worthiness, his humble purity, Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay have omitted to make him particularly interesting.
Thankfully, Wilkinson’s presence is as steady as ever. Cinema’s go-to man for layered upper-class elders, one might imagine him to be phoning it in at this stage. Not so. The veteran thesp delivers, once again, a steely turn as a great figure with hard-grafting roots that serve him well in remaking the unjust laws of men, someone who cannot fail to be influenced by the sense of doing the right thing. At his side, Emily Watson’s graceful, flinty wife is truly brilliant and Penelope Wilton constitutes an added bonus as his forthright spinster-sister.
Melodrama it may possess but Asante undoubtedly succeeds in grasping the tenderness of the tale. There is genuine subtext also, a confirmation that we would be best defined by our characters before anything else and the direction is assured enough to suggest that Asante has more to offer. By turns confident and grandly realised, Belle’s elegance hides a forceful spirit.
This is a slightly edited version of an article which first appeared here.