To unravel the facts from the fictions in Belle would turn any review into a TLDR situation, so let’s agree to call this film a version of the truth with rearranged details designed to amplify all the emotions that 18th century England can never quite muster. But at least the following is true: Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the biracial daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and a slave named Maria Belle, born in 1761 and sent to live with her great-uncle William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), 1st Earl of Mansfield, was a real person whose presence in the home of her great-uncle may have helped inform the push toward England’s eventual abolition of slavery. I know, I know; get to the part about costumes, wigs and glorious English manor set design.
All that stuff is gorgeous, of course, and every shot of director Amma Asante's film seems designed to mimic both the stillness and tension of a central symbolic motif: portraiture of the aristocracy. As Dido gazes at the paintings hanging inside her great-uncle's home, the presence of black slaves and their positions in the portraits unsettles her. The people who look most like her are always off to the side and beneath the subject, looking up as if to anticipate a need they can fulfill. When it comes time to to have her own portrait made with her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), she resists> She knows her place in the house. They never even let her eat dinner with her own family.
But Dido takes action worthy of a heroic portrait when she involves herself in a real life legal case surrounding the 1781 Zong massacre, when British slave traders drowned their sick slaves and filed insurance claims for lost "cargo." William Murray ruled on the case as a chief justice and Belle asserts that his decision was based not only on Dido's sly detective work but also on his love for his great-niece.
Meanwhile, when she's not busy being an 18th century Veronica Mars, Dido navigates and intervenes in a Jane Austen-style romantic tangle involving Elizabeth, an activist clergyman (Sam Reid), a haughty suitor (James Norton) and his nasty brother (Tom Felton, getting all Draco Malfoy about it). And the intersection of these competing elements makes Belle an unusual hybrid, a social message drama that's equal parts romance, history and fiction, underscored by a painful narrative of race in a culture that didn’t want to think about its existence.
Did most of this never happen? Who knows? Probably not. But Belle works well within its own staked out territory, however fictional, a lavish costume drama that caters to 21st century understandings of justice, both social and sexual. And the real portrait of Dido and Elizabeth that still hangs in Scotland's Scone Palace tells the official story, one that caters to this film version's vision of happiness: Elizabeth smiles peacefully and off to her side, on equal footing, also smiling, but on the move, is Dido, actively heading off to some other place in history.