"Belle" is set in 18th Century England, and is based on the true story of Dido Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) whose mother was black and father was an English aristocrat, Captain John Lindsay (Matthew Goode.) The story begins when Captain Lindsay finds his daughter and takes her to his relatives Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emma Watson.) The Captain is off on an epic sea trip and asks the Mansfields to let Dido Belle live with them. They reluctantly agree but they devise an elaborate set of rules to govern her life as a mulatto relative. Over time, the couple grows to love Belle, as they choose to call her, and she becomes their de facto adopted daughter along with her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon.)
Belle and Elizabeth grow into beautiful young women and remain the best of friends. Although treated as a family member when the Mansfields do not have company, Belle is not allowed to dine with guests. Her cousin is scheduled to "come out" but Belle is not. It turns out, however, that Belle is more marriageable by the standards of that day because her late father left her an income of 2,000 pounds a year. In contrast, Elizabeth must marry for money. Belle attracts several suitors including nobleman Oliver Ashford (James Norton) and a minister's son who is reading law with Lord Mansfield, John Divinier (Sam Reid.)
Of even more interest than Belle's personal story is the backdrop of great events of the day. Lord Mansfield is the Chief Justice of the Great Britain. He is deciding a case that could decide the legality of the slave trade. Young Divinier is an abolitionist radical who argues with Mansfield about the case and is discharged as his pupil. This has an adverse effect on his chances with Belle, as His Lordship will only allow her to marry a gentleman. If Divinier becomes a lawyer, he then has a chance with the lovely Belle who eventually falls for him but only after accepting a proposal from Ashford.
The legal case involves whether or not a slave trade committed insurance fraud by killing their human cargo. They claim that they died due to lack of water but the insurers dispute that. The more Belle hears about the case, the more she ponders her African otherness. She discovers some documents proving that the slaves were murdered so that the slavers could file insurance claims. She leaks the documents to Divinier who, in a modern twist, leaks them to the press.
As the great events go on, Belle breaks off her engagement with Ashford after his brother inappropriately fondles and demeans her. He is outraged that a mixed race woman has spurned him but she is resolute and her family supports her.
As the case comes close to a decision, the pro-slavery side vilifies Lord Mansfield. They argue that a decision against them would ruin the economy and that he cannot be unbiased because of Belle. He stands firm and rules that insurance fraud was committed and denounces the slave trade as unjust, immoral, and un-English. This is one of the first major steps on the road to abolition. Belle is proud of her adopted father and happier still when he blesses her relationship with Divinier by asking him to return to his chambers and resume his legal studies.
"Belle" may sound a bit on the melodramatic side but it is very well done and features another great performance by Tom Wilkinson. If you are a Masterpiece Theatre or Merchant-Ivory fan, you will enjoy this film.
Best part of story, including ending: