Belle (2013 film)

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Belle poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAmma Asante
Written byMisan Sagay
Produced byDamian Jones
CinematographyBen Smithard
Edited byPia Di Ciaula
Victoria Boydell
Music byRachel Portman
Distributed byFox Searchlight Pictures
Release dates
  • 8 September 2013 (2013-09-08) (TIFF)
  • 2 May 2014 (2014-05-02) (United States)
  • 13 June 2014 (2014-06-13) (United Kingdom)
Running time
104 minutes[1]
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$10.9 million
Box office$16.5 million[2]

Belle is a 2013 British period drama film directed by Amma Asante, written by Misan Sagay and produced by Damian Jones. It stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, and James Norton.[3][4]

The film is inspired by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle beside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray at Kenwood House, which was commissioned by their great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, then Lord Chief Justice of England. Very little is known about the life of Dido Belle, who was born in the West Indies and was the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Mansfield's nephew, Sir John Lindsay. She is found living in poverty by her father and entrusted to the care of Mansfield and his wife. The fictional film centres on Dido's relationship with an aspiring lawyer; it is set at a time of legal significance, as a court case is heard on what became known as the Zong massacre, when slaves were thrown overboard from a slave ship and the owner filed with his insurance company for the losses. Lord Mansfield ruled on this case in England's Court of King's Bench in 1786, in a decision seen to contribute to the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.


Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay was born in 1761, the natural daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay, a British Royal Navy officer, with Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies. After Dido's mother's death in 1769, Captain Lindsay takes Dido from the West Indies slums and entrusts her to his uncle William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, and his wife Elizabeth, who live at Kenwood House, an estate in Hampstead (then outside London).

Lord and Lady Mansfield raise Dido as a free gentlewoman with their other great-niece Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose widowed father had remarried to a woman who pressured him to disown Elizabeth. When the cousins reach adulthood, the Mansfields commission an oil portrait of their two great-nieces, but Dido fears she will be portrayed as a subordinate, similar to other portraits she has seen depicting aristocrats with black servants.

Dido's father dies, leaving her a vast sum of £2,000 a year, making her an heiress. Lady Elizabeth, by contrast, will have no income from her father, as his son from his new wife has been named sole heir. Arrangements are made for Elizabeth to have her coming-out to society, but Lord and Lady Mansfield believe no gentleman will agree to marry Dido because of her mixed race. Fearing lower-ranking men will only marry her for her wealth, and that a marriage to a lower-status man will reduce her rank and shame the family, Lord Mansfield decides she will travel to London with her cousin but will not be "out" to society, and he asks her to take her spinster great-aunt Mary's place as the keeper of the house, with the implication that she will not marry.

Lord Mansfield agrees to take the vicar's son, John Davinier, into a law pupillage. In 1783, Mansfield hears the case of Gregson v. Gilbert, regarding the payment of an insurance claim, for slaves killed when thrown overboard by the captain of a slave-ship — an event now known as the Zong massacre. Dido helps her uncle with his correspondence. After John tells her about the Zong case, she begins sneaking correspondence to him which he believes will advance the cause of the abolitionists. Lord Mansfield and John have a disagreement on the main issue of the case. John is told leave and not to see Dido again, and his pupillage is at an end.

Dido's aunts, Lady Mansfield and Lady Mary Murray, seek to steer Dido into an engagement with Oliver Ashford, son of a scheming grand dame and younger brother to bigoted James Ashford. At first, James is interested in Elizabeth but stops courting her once he discovers she will have no inheritance. Oliver, who is without fortune, proposes to Dido and she accepts, although she continues to see John in secret. James takes Dido aside, tells her she will disgrace his family's name, then insults and gropes her.

Dido later tells Elizabeth of James' true character, offering to give her part of her inheritance as a dowry so she can find a different match. Lord Mansfield finds out about Dido's visits to John and confronts them, and John professes his love for her. Sometime later, she meets Oliver and breaks off their engagement.

Dido is relieved when the painting is unveiled, she is shown as Elizabeth's equal. She tells Lord Mansfield that the portrait commission proves that he can defy convention.

Dido sneaks into the balcony of the Inn of Court, to hear Lord Mansfield narrowly rule that the Gregson slave-trading syndicate is not due insurance payments for the slaves the crew threw overboard during the voyage. The ship's officers claimed they ordered this action because they were out of potable water, but Lord Mansfield had discovered that the Zong passed by many ports without stopping for more water, before murdering the slaves. The slaves' quarters were overcrowded, making them sick and not likely to fetch a high price at auction, so the officers had decided they would be worth more in insurance payments after their "loss", and so threw them overboard. When Lord Mansfield sees John and Dido outside the Court after his ruling, he says that Dido can only marry a gentleman. Therefore, he agrees to resume John's pupillage, so that he can become a lawyer. Dido and John embrace, both in full acknowledgement of their romantic feelings.

In the credits we see Dido and John married, having two sons. Elizabeth also married and had three children, and their painting hung at Kenwood House until 1922, when it was moved to Scone Palace near Perth, the birthplace of Lord Mansfield.


  • Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle, the protagonist. She is a strong-willed and well-educated young woman, born from Captain Sir John Lindsay's affair with an enslaved woman. Since her father acknowledged her as his child and later left her a considerable inheritance, she is part of the high society and free not to pursue a marriage. She gradually befriends John Davinier over the Zong case, and her input eventually leads Lord Mansfield to rule against the traders.
  • Tom Wilkinson as William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, the great-uncle of Dido and Elizabeth (Dido's father being the son of Lord Mansfield's sister, and Elizabeth's father the son of Lord Mansfield's brother), who is their guardian since they were children, and whom they address as "Papa". As Lord Chief Justice, he is the most powerful judge in England. Upon Dido's arrival to his mansion, he quickly takes to loving her as if she was his own, despite her heritage.
  • Sam Reid as John Davinier, a vicar's son who seeks apprenticeship from Lord Mansfield in pursuit of a career as a lawyer. He's idealistic and passionate in his moral convictions, and meets with an abolitionist group.
  • Emily Watson as Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Mansfield, whom the girls address as "Mama". She is very caring toward her nieces, although she sees order and etiquette as essential. She tries very hard to find Elizabeth a suitable match.
  • Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth Murray, Elizabeth is cheerful and affectionate toward her cousin Dido, and the two of them are inseparable since childhood and consider themselves sisters. Due to Elizabeth's father having a male heir from his second marriage, she's left without a dowry, which complicates her finding a suitable husband.
  • Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford, a scheming lady who attempts to marry off her two sons to the Mansfield girls. She feels contempt for Dido's heritage, but she's able to put that aside in order to let her son James put his hands on Dido's dowry.
  • Penelope Wilton as Lady Mary Murray, the manager of the household and governess of Dido and Elizabeth. Her demeanor is firm but caring, and teaches Elizabeth and Dido the ways of etiquette, music and embroidery. She is a spinster but had a one-time gentleman caller, whom her mother prevented her from marrying.
  • Tom Felton[5] as James Ashford, the malevolent firstborn of Lord and Lady Ashford who also shares his mother's contempt for Dido's heritage and even assaults her at one point. He courts Elizabeth until he discovers her impoverished status.
  • James Norton as Oliver Ashford, the younger son of Lord and Lady Ashford. He is attracted to Dido's beauty and wealth, but he is not completely immune from his family's prejudices.
  • Matthew Goode as Captain Sir John Lindsay, the birth father of Dido. After Dido's mother died, he acknowledged his daughter and took her to the Mansfield household, begging his uncle and aunt to take her into their guardianship. He dies while Dido is still young, without her having a chance to know him better.
  • Alex Jennings as Lord Ashford, a high-ranked judge and Lady Ashford's husband. He hurries Lord Mansfield toward a decision on the Zong case, and has a kinder disposition than his wife and sons.
  • Bethan Mary-James as Mabel, a dark-skinned servant at the Mansfield household. Dido worries that she may be a slave, but Lord Mansfield assures her Mabel is free and being paid a "very respectable" wage.
  • James Northcote as Mr. Vaughn, Elizabeth's more gentle suitor.


1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761–1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760–1825).

The 1779 painting, once thought to be by Johann Zoffany,[6] is now attributed to David Martin.[7] The painting hung in Kenwood House until 1922 and now hangs at Scone Palace in Perthshire, Scotland. It was one of the first European portraits to portray a black subject on an equal eye-line with a white aristocrat, though distinctions are implied by the poses, as Elizabeth's "formality and bookishness are contrasted with the wild and exotically turbanned 'natural' figure of Belle."[8][9]

The painting is replicated in the film with the faces of the actresses portraying the characters replacing those in the original. Dido's finger-to-cheek gesture is absent in the fictionalised version, as is her feathered turban. The original picture is shown on screen at the end of the film.


Filming began on 24 September 2012. The film was shot on location in the Isle of Man,[10][11] Oxford[12] and London. It is the first major British motion picture to be shot in true-4K, using Sony's F65 CineAlta digital production camera.[13] The film was produced by DJ Films, Isle of Man Film, and Pinewood Pictures with support from the BFI.[14]

Production designer Simon Bowles created the 18th-century Bristol Docks on the Isle of Man and created Kenwood House, based on a number of stately homes in the London area.

Original music for the film was composed by Rachel Portman.[15]

Historical references[edit]

The film is a work of historical fiction, inspired by a painting and the evidence that Dido was brought up at Kenwood House. The relative lack of details about Dido Elizabeth Belle allowed screenwriter Misan Sagay considerable artistic licence in framing the young woman's story, within the broader historical context of the slave economy and the abolition movement.

The only other direct historical reference made about Belle, other than the painting and American loyalist Thomas Hutchinson's personal diary,[16][17] appear in Elements of Moral Science, a 1790 work by the Scottish professor of moral philosophy James Beattie, who met Belle and in the book states she recited poetry with "a degree of elegance"[18] equal to any English child of her age, arguing against the then prevailing theory that "negroes are naturally and utterly incapable of distinct articulation".[18]

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who was Lord Chief Justice of England from 1756 to 1788, presided over two important cases, Somerset v Stewart in 1772 and the Zong insurance claims case in 1783, which helped lay the groundwork for Britain's Slave Trade Act 1807. In the film his concluding line at the end of the Zong case - "the state of slavery (is) so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it" - was historically actually quoted by him in the Somerset v Stewart case eleven years before.[19] As in the film, he was the great-uncle of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray.

At the suggestion of the producers, HarperCollins published a companion book, Belle - The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice (2014), by biographer Paula Byrne, recounting the lives of the film's principal characters.

Historical accuracy[edit]

Sagay chose to set the major events; Belle's and Elizabeth's love affairs and the Zong case, in the same year the painting was made - when Belle was about 18. In reality, Belle married at 32, long after Lady Elizabeth was married and no longer in touch with Belle.[20]

John Davinier was in real life a French manservant at Kenwood, not an English apprentice lawyer.[21]

James Walvin OBE, professor emeritus of the University of York, said of Belle: "Much of the historical evidence is there – though festooned in the film with imaginary relishes and fictional tricks. Partly accurate, the whole thing reminded me of the classic Morecambe and Wise sketch with Andre Previn (Eric bashing away on the piano): all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order."[22] Reviewing the film for History Extra, the official website of BBC History Magazine, Walvin noted that while the second half of the film centres on Dido Elizabeth Belle's involvement in the Zong case, in reality she was "nowhere to be found in the Zong affair".[22] In the film "Tom Wilkinson’s Mansfield finds his cold legal commercial heart softened, and edged towards abolition by the eyelash-fluttering efforts of his stunning great niece" and his "adjudication becomes, not a point of law, but the first bold assertion towards the end of slavery". Walvin points out that "he merely stated that there should be another hearing of the Zong case – this time with evidence not known at the earlier hearing". Walvin awarded the film one star for enjoyment and two for historical accuracy.


Some press coverage ahead of filming cited Asante as the sole writer of Belle as well as director.[23] Press releases that followed Fox Searchlight's acquisition of the film gave the final credit determined by the Writers Guild of America as "Written by Misan Sagay".[24][25] Sagay claimed she began writing her script in 2004, after seeing the painting of Dido Belle at Scone Palace. The project was initially developed by HBO. It then received funding from the British Film Institute in 2009, but Sagay left the project the following year due to serious ill-health.[26] When Asante was hired, Sagay believed that Asante would edit her script. Instead she learned that a script without her name on was being used.[26]

The subsequent arbitration process undertaken by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) determined that Sagay provided the bulk of content used in the script, so Sagay was awarded sole writing credit.[26] Cast members Penelope Wilton and Tom Wilkinson expressed "incredulity" at the accreditation decision.[27] Wilkinson said he "only saw and worked from a script written by Amma".[28] Information obtained by Entertainment Weekly showed Asante wrote 18 script drafts, before she directed the film.[28] Producers planned to submit Asante and Sagay as co-writers, but Sagay wanted a solo credit. Producer Damian Jones then asked the WGA to give Sagay a "story by" credit, with Asante getting a "screenplay by" credit, but this was rejected.[28] Asante appealed the WGA's decision, but lost.[27][29]


In July 2013, it was announced that Fox Searchlight Pictures had acquired distribution rights for the film in the UK and USA.[30] Belle premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on 8 September 2013.[31][32] The film was released on 2 May 2014 in the United States, 9 May in Canada and 13 June 2014 in the United Kingdom.[33]


The film received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a "Certified Fresh" score of 84% based on reviews from 150 critics, with an average rating of 6.99/10. The site's consensus states: "It boasts all the surface beauty that fans of period pictures have come to expect, but Belle also benefits from its stirring performances and subtle social consciousness."[34] Critic Mark Kermode named it his fourth-favourite film of 2014.[35]


Award Date of ceremony Category Recipients and nominees Result
African-American Film Critics Association[36] 8 December 2014 Best Actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw Won
Best Film Belle Nominated
Black Reel Awards[37][38] 19 February 2015 Best Actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw Won
Best Director Amma Asante Nominated
Best Ensemble Toby Whale Nominated
Best Film Belle Nominated
Best Screenplay Misan Sagay Nominated
British Independent Film Awards[39][40] 7 December 2014 Best Actress in a British Independent Film Gugu Mbatha-Raw Won
Best Newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association[41] 15 December 2014 Most Promising Performer Gugu Mbatha-Raw Nominated
Empire Awards[42] 29 March 2015 Best Female Newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw Nominated
London Film Critics' Circle[43] 18 January 2015 British Actress of the Year Gugu Mbatha-Raw Nominated
Miami International Film Festival[44] 15 March 2014 SIGNIS Award Belle Won
NAACP Image Award[45][46] 6 February 2015 Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture Gugu Mbatha-Raw Nominated
Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture Amma Asante Nominated
Outstanding Independent Motion Picture Belle Won
Outstanding Motion Picture Belle Nominated
Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture Misan Sagay Won
Palm Springs International Film Festival[47][48] 3–13 January 2014 Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature Belle Nominated
Directors to Watch Amma Asante Won
Satellite Award[49] 15 February 2015 Best Actress in a Motion Picture Gugu Mbatha-Raw Nominated
Best Costume Design Anushia Nieradzik Nominated
Women Film Critics Circle[50][51] 16 December 2014 Best Female Images in a Movie Belle Nominated
Best Movie by a Woman Amma Asante Nominated
Best Woman Storyteller Misan Sagay Nominated
Karen Morley Award Belle Won

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "BELLE (PG)". 20th Century Fox. British Board of Film Classification. 25 March 2014. Retrieved 27 March 2014.
  2. ^ "Belle (2014)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 28 July 2014.
  3. ^ Mitchell, Wendy (2 November 2012). "Belle | Features | Screen". Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  4. ^ Kemp, Stuart (2 November 2012). "Amma Asante Unveils First Glimpse of 'Belle'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  5. ^ "Tom Felton Rings The Belle". Empire. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  6. ^ "Dido and Elizabeth Portrait". English Heritage. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  7. ^ Fake or Fortune?, Season 7, Episode 4.
  8. ^ Bindman, David, & Henry Louis Gates, The Image of the Black in Western Art, Harvard University Press, 2010, xviii.
  9. ^ English Heritage, "Slavery and Justice at Kenwood House, Part 1" (PDF). English Heritage. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  10. ^ "Isle of Man praised by Belle movie team". BBC News. 9 October 2012. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  11. ^ "Filming of movie Belle 'to bring £1m' to Isle of Man". BBC News. 9 October 2012. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  12. ^ French, Andrew (23 October 2012). "Oxford is the backdrop for star-studded movie". Oxford Mail. Archived from the original on 14 July 2014. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  13. ^ Ramachandran, Naman (2 January 2013). "Belle first major British 4K film". Cineuropa. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  14. ^ "Full cast announced for BAFTA Award winner Amma Asante's Belle". British Film Institute. 7 September 2012. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  15. ^ "Rachel Portman Scoring 'Belle'". Film Music Reporter. 8 May 2013. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  16. ^ Brown, Lauren (23 October 2020). "Our Legal Heritage: Black History Month – Dido Elizabeth Belle". Scottish Legal News. Retrieved 7 April 2021.
  17. ^ Bell, J. L. (14 May 2014). "Thomas Hutchinson Meets Dido Belle". Boston 1775. Retrieved 4 April 2021.
  18. ^ a b Beattie, James (1809). The Works of James Beattie, LL.D.: Elements of moral science. p. 225 – via Google Books. 1809 edition, Philadelphia: Hopkins and Earle.
  19. ^ BBC History Revealed magazine; May 2022 issue; Page 64
  20. ^ Kevin (21 May 2014). "Q&A with Misan Sagay". Scripts & Scribes.
  21. ^ Kellaway, Kate (18 May 2014). "Amma Asante: 'I'm bi-cultural, I walk the division that Belle walked every day'". The Observer.
  22. ^ a b "Historian at the Movies: Belle reviewed". History Extra. 2 July 2014.
  23. ^ Kemp, Stuart (7 September 2012). "Penelope Wilton and Tom Felton Join Cast of Amma Asante's 'Belle'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  24. ^ Cook, Cameron (22 July 2013). "Exclusive BELLE gallery at USA Today". Fox Searchlight. Retrieved 7 June 2014.
  25. ^ Rosser, Michael (1 July 2013). "Fox Searchlight acquires Belle". Retrieved 7 June 2014.
  26. ^ a b c Olsen, Mark (29 July 2014). "Writing dispute for film 'Belle' bubbles up again". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  27. ^ a b Mumin, Nijla (19 May 2014). "Understanding Screenwriting Credit and WGA Arbitration in 'Belle' and '12 Years A Slave'". Archived from the original on 16 August 2016. Retrieved 30 June 2016.
  28. ^ a b c Sperling, Nicole (15 May 2014). "'Belle': Bad blood brewing over writing credits". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on 16 May 2014. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  29. ^ Singh, Anita (3 August 2014). "Belle authors in bitter feud over writing credit". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2 April 2020.
  30. ^ Kemp, Stuart (1 July 2013). "Fox Searchlight Picks Up 'Belle' for North America, U.K." The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  31. ^ "Toronto film festival 2013: the full line-up". The Guardian. London. 23 July 2013. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
  32. ^ "Belle". TIFF. Archived from the original on 16 August 2013. Retrieved 7 August 2013.
  33. ^ Internet Movie Database. "Belle Release Info". IMDb. Retrieved 17 May 2014.
  34. ^ "Belle (2014)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 18 May 2020.
  35. ^ "My Top Ten Films of 2014 - Part 2". Kermode Uncut. BBC.
  36. ^ Kilday, Gregg (8 December 2014). "African-American Film Critics Association Lauds 'Selma'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 13 December 2014.
  37. ^ Tapley, Kristopher (17 December 2014). "'Dear White People,' 'Selma' lead 15th annual Black Reel Awards nominations". HitFix. Retrieved 3 January 2015.
  38. ^ Tapley, Kristopher (20 February 2015). "'Selma' wins six Black Reel Awards, including best film". HitFix. Retrieved 15 March 2015.
  39. ^ Alexander, Susannah (3 November 2014). "'71 and Pride lead British Independent Film Awards 2014 nominations". Digital Spy. Retrieved 16 December 2014.
  40. ^ Ellis-Petersen, Hannah (8 December 2014). "Pride, '71 and Belle head prizes at British independent film awards". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 December 2014.
  41. ^ ""Birdman" Leads 2014 CFCA Nominations". Chicago Film Critics Association. 12 December 2014. Archived from the original on 27 November 2015. Retrieved 12 December 2014.
  42. ^ Tobin, Christian (24 February 2015). "The Imitation Game leads Empire Awards 2015 nominations". Digital Spy. Retrieved 15 March 2015.
  43. ^ Finbow, Katy (16 December 2014). "Mr Turner leads London Critics' Circle Film Awards nominations". Digital Spy. Retrieved 16 December 2014.
  44. ^ "First SIGNIS Prize at the Miami International Film Festival 2014". SIGNIS. Archived from the original on 13 April 2014. Retrieved 16 December 2014.
  45. ^ Jue, Teresa (9 December 2014). "NAACP Image Awards announce nominations for film and TV". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 11 December 2014.
  46. ^ "'Selma', 'Black-Ish,' 'HTGAWM' Dominate NAACP Image Awards – Complete Winners List". Deadline Hollywood. 6 February 2015. Retrieved 16 February 2015.
  47. ^ "Feature Festival Awards Archive". Palm Springs International Film Society. Retrieved 16 December 2014.
  48. ^ Fessier, Bruce (3 January 2014). "Palm Springs film fest: 'Belle' director: 'It's an incredible weekend'". The Desert Sun. Archived from the original on 16 December 2014. Retrieved 16 December 2014.
  49. ^ Pond, Steve (1 December 2014). "'Birdman' Leads Satellite Awards Nominations". TheWrap. Retrieved 16 December 2014.
  50. ^ Tapley, Kristopher (14 December 2014). "'The Homesman' leads 2014 Women Film Critics Circle nominations". HitFix. Retrieved 12 January 2015.
  51. ^ Tapley, Kristopher (22 December 2014). "'Still Alice' cleans up at the Women Film Critics Circle Awards". HitFix. Retrieved 12 January 2015.

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