The double portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray that appears at the end of Belle - and that actresses Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sarah Gadon pose for in the film - is remarkable in one defining way.
Dido Elizabeth Belle, played with grace and power by Mbatha-Raw, is black. Lady Elizabeth, her cousin, played with spirited good cheer by Gadon, is white. The painting, hanging today in a university gallery in Scotland, was commissioned in 1779 to capture the two young women, who grew up as close as sisters, and who moved in the aristocratic circles of 18th-century England. It is believed to be the only painting of its kind from that era: a black girl and a white girl, both in the finest of satin dresses, posing together.
Belle, directed by Amma Asante, takes its inspiration from that curious artwork and the few facts known about its black subject.
The illegitimate offspring of a Royal Navy officer and an African woman - most probably a slave - in the West Indies, Belle was raised by her great-uncle William Murray, Earl of Mansfield - and lord chief justice of England and Wales - and his wife, Lady Mansfield. Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson are the couple, and they come and go, frown and agitate, show their affection and withhold it, with the starchiness and self-consciousness one would expect from earls and ladies of the late 1700s. They would do Jane Austen proud.
In fact, Belle plays like some canny amalgam of Austen - courting rituals, secret longings, society gossip - and the historical horror stories of slavery depicted in 12 Years a Slave and Amistad. As Belle - afforded many but not all of the privileges of her cousin - grows up, finding a proper husband becomes paramount. Very much in her favor: a handsome dowry, left to her by her father. Very much against her: the color of her skin. She is "old Mansfield's infamous mulatto," and she can never live that down.
Suitors are sought and found for both Belle and Elizabeth, and the cousins chatter about their prospects with the merry elan of girlfriends comparing notes. But in classic Austen style, the young man with whom Belle first argues, whom she carries on with frostily, bullheadedly, is her destiny. He is John Davinier (Sam Reid), a vicar's son studying for the law, and a zealous abolitionist.
It happens that Belle's great-uncle, the chief justice, is about to hear the case of the slave ship Zong, whose captain ordered the jettisoning of its "cargo" - African slaves - for the safety of his crew. The shipping company is seeking restitution from its insurers. The abolitionists seized on the case as a startling example of the injustice and cruelty of slavery.
Belle, with its country manors and its city slums, its snooty nobles and its fiery idealists, its ballroom dances and barroom conspiracies, brings these themes to a dramatic head: romance and race, privilege and justice.
Belle *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Amma Asante. With Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sarah Gadon, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 min.
Parent's guide: PG (adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.
Note: Asante is scheduled to do a Q&A after the 7:25 p.m. Friday screening.