In late 18th-century England, Dido Elizabeth Belle is exiled in a peculiar and lonely middle ground.
She is too high in rank to eat with the servants and yet too low to dine with her aristocratic family. In “Belle,” Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate daughter of a white Royal Navy admiral and a black Caribbean slave.
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sarah Gadon, Emily Watson.
Rating: PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images.
As a motherless child, Dido is brought to the grand country estate of her great uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), and his refined wife (Emily Watson), who are already caring for another young relative, Elizabeth.
But as Dido’s father says, “What is right can never be impossible.” It’s a sentiment that will echo through the social, emotional and legal layers of the story.
The girls — one biracial, one white — are as close as sisters as they mature and approach the time of meeting potential mates and weighing marriage offers. Race is a factor but so, too, is the sweetener or absence of a generous inheritance or dowry.
But more wide-reaching and imperative questions hang over the household and British empire. The great uncle whom Dido calls Papa also happens to be the Lord Chief Justice of England and will decide a landmark case involving the ship Zong and its human “cargo” jettisoned to cruel, watery deaths.
An insurance dispute lights the fuse on incendiary, historic issues of slavery and justice — as well as the character of some of the men in Dido’s life.
“Belle,” directed by London-born Amma Asante, is about a young woman struggling to find herself, her voice and her place in the world. In one of Ms. Mbatha-Raw’s most memorable scenes, she sits silently in front of a vanity mirror and slaps and tugs at her skin, as if to try to remove the color that makes her such an obvious outsider.
Although the question of slavery gives “Belle” a sturdy spine, this has more than a touch of Jane Austen with a dash of “Downton Abbey” thanks to Penelope Wilton. The actress known as Isobel Crawley on the period TV drama portrays Lord Mansfield’s unmarried sister and the girls’ governess.
Rounding out the cast are: Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth; Sam Reid as John Davinier, a vicar’s son and advocate for social justice; Miranda Richardson as the social-climbing mother of two sons, portrayed by Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) and James Norton; and Matthew Goode as Dido’s barely seen birth father.
The script is a mix of fact and fiction with some liberties taken to create parallels between a possible Dido suitor and Lord Mansfield. A striking, telling detail about a commissioned portrait, however, is factual as you will see at the movie’s end.
In addressing class, race, privilege and freedom, “Belle” reminds us of the power of love and personal and social awakenings, and the sinewy strength of the belief, “Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall.”
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.