It’s the 1770s, London is bustling with arguments about the slave trade and the status of young women is strictly circumscribed—in short, it’s not the best time to be Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral and a West Indies native. As it happens, Dido grows up amid English privilege, surrounded by servants but hidden from scandalous view, her blond cousin, Bette (Sarah Gadon), getting all the attention. Belle, to its discredit, often forgets to supply the racism, a serious mistake; the slurs are barely whispered, and you can’t help but think the character’s real-life story must have been a lot tougher.
Closer to a special episode of Diff’rent Strokes than to 12 Years a Slave, the movie seems to exist to give its white characters belated moments of conscience. Surrogate parent Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) comes to love the child as his own—and might even have something to say about that from the bench when he rules on the landmark Zong slave-ship massacre. A smitten suitor grows to respect Dido’s brain. The pretty deb cousin lashes out and then weeps in shame. You’d think being black was harder on them than on the title character.
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