Based on the remarkable real-life story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a British Navy admiral and an enslaved African woman in 18th-century England, Belle hinges on historical events that led to the abolition of slavery in England and elsewhere. Belle was raised in luxury at London's Kenwood House by her great-uncle, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Director Amma Asante's film focuses on Belle's romantic tribulations as a young woman of mixed race who was raised as an aristocrat but would never fit into that world. The story plays out amid a burgeoning anti-slavery movement and a historic legal ruling by Lord Mansfield on the infamous Zong massacre, in which the owners of a slave ship threw about 142 slaves into the ocean to drown in 1781 in hopes of later receiving insurance money for lost cargo.
Belle's Hollywood-style romance emerges victorious from an epic battle with the more interesting historical drama at its center. The two stories are bound together; historians suggest Lord Mansfield's rulings on social justice issues were influenced by his experiences raising Belle, whom he loved as his own daughter. But an in-depth look at the Zong massacre and its ensuing legal battle might have made a more compelling film. Though British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw does a credible job as Belle, it's Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield who steals the show. Belle is at its best when Wilkinson conjures a mix of fatherly understanding, upper-class practicality and deeply felt social responsibility, qualities he manages to embody with precious few words. The real-life Belle's story deserves no less.