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Inspired by the real story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral and a slave woman named Maria Belle, the film traces her unusual upbringing, romance with a rebellious young lawyer-in-training and charts how their relationship helps to bring about the end of slavery in 18th-century England.
Belle was a pioneer and I wanted to do her justice. Her story needs to be known
The roots of this intriguing story lie in a painting that depicts two exquisitely dressed girls – one black and one white.
Dating from 1779, it is unsigned but believed to be by Johann Zoffany, a renowned portraitist of the time. The subjects of the painting are Dido Belle (played in the film by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, perhaps best known for her West End debut as Ophelia opposite Jude Law’s Hamlet) and Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon).
Belle was the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay (played by Matthew Goode), a Royal Navy captain who, rather than abandoning her, entrusted her to the care of her childless Great Uncle, Lord Mansfield (Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson), then Lord Chief Justice of England.
She was raised by him and his wife (Emily Watson) at Kenwood House where she became the companion of her half-cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Cara Jenkins), who, following the death of her mother had also been entrusted to the care of the Mansfields.
Beyond this very unusual situation, very little factual information is available about Belle – save for the fact that she ultimately married a man named John Davinier. For writer Misan Sagay, this lack of information provided an amazing opportunity.
“It was such a great story,” she explains. “But it was also one where you weren’t tied by known history, because there wasn’t very much.”
The narrative that Sagay has woven sees Belle as a young woman embroiled in the courting rituals of the era, while simultaneously being an outsider whose identity – and skin colour – means she is not treated as an equal.
However, she falls for a young legal apprentice, John Davinier (Sam Reid), who is embroiled with the landmark Zong ship trial, which has focused the world’s attention on the inhumanity of slavery. Suddenly, Belle finds herself in a position to change the course of history.
This unusual juxtaposition of 18th-century society and the politics of the slave trade fascinated and engaged director Amma Asante.
“I’ve never seen a film about the Jane Austen elements we know so well – the marriage market, the lives of girls growing up into society ladies, the romantic longing – combined with a story about the end of slavery,” she says.
And for Mbatha-Raw, who plays Belle, the appeal of the role was that not only did it cover issues still relevant to a contemporary audience – class, race, money, marriage, family, falling in love for the first time and finding your identity – but also spoke to her personally. The potent combination proved irresistible.
“The idea that this girl was part of our cultural legacy in England – a mixed race woman in the 1780s – hooked me,” she says. “Speaking as a mixed-race woman in 2014, there aren’t many historical stories about women like me. When people think of ‘dual heritage’, they imagine it’s a modern concept, but really it’s not.
“The fact that Dido Belle was a pioneer is amazing and I wanted to do her justice. Her story needs to be known.”