Such an interesting film, and one I was drawn to purely for its research potential, but ended by finding a great deal more. It isn’t entirely satisfactory, sacrificing historical accuracy to dramatic storytelling, but it was nevertheless very enjoyable to watch, and superb in both acting and the lush visual presentation.
The most fascinating aspect for me was that this is based on a true story. The film is inspired by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay beside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, at Kenwood House, which was commissioned by their great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, then Lord Chief Justice of England. Very little is known about the life of Dido Belle, who was born in the West Indies and was the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Mansfield’s nephew. She is found living in poverty by her father and entrusted to the care of Mansfield and his wife, who raised and educated her alongside Elizabeth, and in exactly the same way. Needless to say, Dido’s colour and illegitimacy create tensions within the family, for instance, when she is not allowed to dine with the family when they have guests but is allowed to join then in the drawing room afterwards.
It was interesting to me to compare this even-handed upbringing with the way Fanny was raised in Mansfield Park. In Austen’s work, Fanny was very much the poor relation, despite being the niece of a baronet, and not only treated as such, but expected to know her place. Dido, by contrast, seems to have been treated as an equal, yet when her father dies and leaves her his fortune, there’s a stark contrast between the two cousins. Both have respectable family connections, but Elizabeth, despite being poor, is expected to make a good marriage, whereas Dido, who is rich, has no expectations because she is mulatto (mixed race) and illegitimate.
The romance isn’t entirely satisfactory, but that’s partly because Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Dido, is something of a blank slate. She’s very lovely, of course, and the costumes show her off to glorious advantage, but she lacks something of the nuances in her performance, so that it’s often hard to know what she’s feeling. I was never terribly clear, to be honest, as to why she became engaged to Oliver Ashford. It’s presumed to be the result of bowing to the conventional wisdom that a woman needs a man to take care of her (and her fortune), but happily she breaks free of this in time for a resolution with clergyman’s son, lawyer and political campaigner John Davinier.
The running theme of slavery, and Lord Mansfield’s verdict on a famous case threads through the whole film. It treads a fine line between the sentimental (Mansfield affected by a dearly-loved mulatto in his own household) and the commercial (the value of slaves as a commodity), and I feel it succeeds pretty well, despite the film’s attempts to over-dramatise what would undoubtedly have been dry legal discussion.
An enjoyable film, not complicated, but beautiful to look at and with some stellar performances from the usual array of talented British actors in side roles.