Stiff, bustling court dresses, elaborate carriages, manicured wigs and fractured family ties all make an appearance as the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) unfolds. Inspired by the true story and 1779 painting of Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), the film is set in 18th century England and opens with a heartfelt scene between a young Dido (Lauren Julien-Box) and her white father Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). Captain Lindsay has illegitimately fathered Dido through his relationship with enslaved African, Maria Belle, who dies when Dido is quite young.
Though initially met with doubt and hesitation, Captain Lindsay, who must return to sea, brings Belle to England and convinces his aristocratic uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson) to take Belle in as their own, despite her mixed race. Belle grows up alongside her cousin Elizabeth, who herself has been abandoned by her father and is left without an inheritance.
Belle feels loved by her adoptive family, but she is not afforded the privileges of her cousin, due to the color of her skin. Belle must dine separately from her family and is reminded of her inferiority at the prospect of finding a husband. Elizabeth is seen as the preferable mate amongst suitors, but in a twist, Belle becomes an heiress at her father’s death, which makes Belle a desirable match in the eyes of “gentleman” Oliver Ashford (James Norton), who proposes to her. However, Belle begins to see her reality differently when she crosses paths with an attractive, passionate, aspiring lawyer and anti-slavery advocate, John Davinier (Sam Reid).
Belle’s affectionate uncle, Lord Mansfield the chief justice, becomes involved in a legal case (the Zong massacre case) involving England’s slave trade and must grapple with potentially perpetuating slavery, while having a mixed raced great-niece who he has raised as his own daughter. All the while, Davinier enlightens Belle to the plight of the slaves and they enter a friendship-turned-romance that reaches its peak when Davinier declares passionately to Belle’s uncle “Yes, I love her! I love her with every breath I breathe!” Needless to say, Belle does not marry Oliver Ashford, whose family sees Belle as inferior and only desirable because of her inheritance.
Though initially disapproving, Lord Mansfield comes to appreciate Davinier’s passion as a young lawyer fighting for justice, as he once was. Mbatha-Raw might be an unfamiliar face to some, she delivers a heartfelt performance in the film, which proves to be a surprising hit that intertwines notions of class, race and love. Although not overwhelmingly filled with romance, the film does reveal how Belle, Davinier and Lord Mansfield broke conventions and began to change the course of history as well as the lives of slaves for years to come. The painting of Belle and her cousin Elizabeth, in which Belle is portrayed as Elizabeth’s equal, still hangs on the walls of Scone Palace in Scotland today.