Please note that there are minor spoilers in this review.
Don't be afraid, I've come to take you to a better place.
Belle is the daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral who lost the love of his life, a beautiful black African woman. Together they had a beautiful half-caste, illegitimate child called Dido played by Gugu Mabatha-Raw. He returns to England and leaves her to be raised by her aristocratic great uncle, Lord Mansfield [Tom Wilkinson], his wife and great aunt.
Contrary to what one might expect, she is immediately included in daily life at Kenwood House and loved, particularly by her cousin Elizabeth, who is her age. The children grow up together sharing all their childhood tasks and dreams. However protocol dictates that Dido is in an unusual position. She cannot participate in all the family affairs. She cannot eat with the family when company calls, but isn't lowly enough to eat with the servants, so she dines alone on these occasions. Nor can she be presented at court when she 'comes out'.
Dido is left property and a large income when her father dies which is in contrast to Cousin Elizabeth who has social rank but no income. The film concentrates on the courting years of the two girls. This involves efforts of Elizabeth's mother to make suitable matches for the girls. Many balls and parties later, the girls are both married. But not as mother had planned.
But there is more. A slave ship's captain jettisons 142 live slaves overboard on a trip to England. He knows that if his 'cargo' is dead on arrival, the insurance company won't pay up. Lord Mansfield, who is the Lord Chief Justice, makes a judgement in this case that changes the course of slavery in England and later leads to the abolition of slavery.
Protocol is all important and the status quo must be preserved. Justice for black slaves [the cargo] hangs by a thread. The film is based on a 'true' story. Social rank and justice are influenced by the entry of this half-caste, illegitimate girl into British aristocratic society. The dialogue is sophisticated, costumes and settings are lavish and the acting is excellent. There is a lot to contemplate and a second viewing wouldn't go astray.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825). The original is in Scone Palace, Perthshire, Scotland.