In the late 1700s, slavery was still legal in England and the English economy relied heavily on the slave trade.
Royal Navy Admiral Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) brings his daughter Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to be raised by his family in England after the death of the girl’s birth mother, with whom Sir John was in love.
At first, Dido’s aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), object to raising the illegitimate girl alongside their other niece, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). But soon they come to love the little girl as their own and raise her with most of the same privileges as her cousin.
Things get complicated, however, when both girls come of age and hope to marry. It seems unlikely that any eligible bachelor of high rank would be willing to marry Dido, despite her comfortable inheritance.
Dido does meet a legal student named John Davinier (Sam Reid), who bonds with her during a legal case involving the Zong slave ship where dozens of diseased slaves were thrown overboard so their owner could collect the insurance money.
The remarkable efforts and courage exhibited by the entire Mansfield family help forge a path to the end of slavery in England — 32 years before the United States.
This beautiful costume drama was inspired by a real portrait of Dido and Elizabeth that hangs in the Scone Palace in Scotland. The two young women, though of different races, are happily posed next to each other. It is certainly unique among other 18th-century family portraits.
Directed by Amma Asante (A Way of Life) and written by Misan Sagay (Their Eyes Were Watching God), the film also stars Tom Felton (Harry Potter) and Miranda Richardson (The Hours).
Belle opens in theaters May 2.
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