The plot feels like a Jane Austen novel infused with a hot-potato political issue, but this is actually a true story. It's been somewhat fictionalised, but the central facts are accurate, and while the production is perhaps a bit too polished for its own good, the solid acting and filmmaking make the story involving and provocative. And its themes feel just as relevant today.
In 1769 London, a young half-black girl named Dido Belle is taken by her soldier father (Matthew Goode) to live with his uncle, the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). With his wife (Emily Watson) and sister (Penelope Winton), he is already caring for another niece, and the two girls grow up as inseparable friends. Hidden from society, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) inherits a small fortune from her father. And while Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) is penniless, her white skin makes her a more suitable spouse. Then family friend Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) foists her son James (Tom Felten) on Elizabeth. To their horror, his brother Oliver (James Norton) falls for Dido. But she's more interested in an impoverished law student (Sam Reid).
Along with these rather standard period-movie romantic shenanigans, there's a major subplot about Lord Mansfield's imminent ruling in the first court case to take on the slave trade, which could destabilise the entire British Empire. And this is where the film jolts into something significant: the UK's top judge had an adopted mixed-race daughter who probably influenced the first landmark decision against slavery. Meanwhile, director Amma Asante also vividly portrays the gritty realities of this young black woman's precarious position in society.
Mbatha-Raw is excellent in the title role, undermining the melodrama with sharp intelligence and a real sense of justice. She also has sparky chemistry with Gadon and Reid. And Wilkinson delivers a thoughtful, sensitive performance as a complex man who knows that he's at a key point in history. Add lavish production values and a swirling Rachel Portman score, and the film punches all the right notes for a first-rate costume drama. But it's the topical edge to the otherwise soapy drama that makes it worth a look.
Run time: 104 mins
In Theaters: Friday 13th June 2014
Box Office USA: $10.7M
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight
Production compaines: Pinewood Studios, DJ Films, Isle of Man Film, British Film Institute (BFI), Metrol Technology
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Fresh: 108 Rotten: 22
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Director: Amma Asante
Producer: Damian Jones
Screenwriter: Misan Sagay
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle, Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield, Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford, Penelope Wilton as Lady Mary Murray, Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield, Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth, Sam Reid as John Davinier, Matthew Goode as Captain Sir John Lindsay, Tom Felton as James Ashford, James Norton as Oliver Ashford, Alan McKenna as Harry, Lauren Julien-Box as Young Dido
Also starring: Damian Jones
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