Set in aristocratic 18th-century England, Belle is all that you would expect of a Jane Austen-esque romance—and much more. Against the backdrop of the upper-class marriage market, the film depicts the 1781 landmark trial of the Zong ship, whose crew drowned 142 slaves to “conserve water.” The Zong’s owners went to court to collect insurance on the slaves’ deaths—which would have yielded more money than selling them alive—and Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of England, presided over the case.
Although he had no children himself, Lord Mansfield was raising two of his great-nieces: the legitimate but abandoned Elizabeth Murray and the mixed-race and illegitimate Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay. Not much is known about Dido, beyond a remarkable portrait of her and her cousin that inspired the film. But this lack of concrete information offered a wealth of opportunity for director Amma Asante and English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who brings the 18th-century heroine to life onscreen in Fox Searchlight’s Belle. Out this week, Belle depicts the inherent tension between Dido’s aristocratic upbringing and society’s resistance towards accepting her skin color. When Dido meets the passionate abolitionist John Davinier (portrayed by Australian actor Sam Reid), she learns of her great-uncle’s power in deciding the verdict for the Zong trial. “Dido has been so protected,” Mbatha-Raw explains, “John is her first entry into the outside world. He opens her mind through this political awakening and education about the Zong.” As Dido and John’s friendship and alliance evolves, her social position as a mixed-race heiress and his as a vicar’s son threatens their future.
Mbatha-Raw and Reid call their characters “pioneers,” and fittingly, Mbatha-Raw and Reid are rising actors in their own right. Mbatha-Raw appeared on Broadway in Hamlet opposite Jude Law, and Reid was just seen in The Railway Man with Jeremy Irvine, Colin Firth, and Nicole Kidman. We sat down with the two of them at the New York Palace to talk about the film’s historical roots, its timeless love story, and their escapades on set in the Isle of Mann.
ADRIAN RAPAZZINI: Can you each tell me how you each became attached to the film?
GUGU MBATHA-RAW: Well, I first met [producer] Damien Jones about seven years ago when I’d just gotten out of drama school and I had a two-line part in a film he was producing. And he told me about the idea for Belle, based on this painting in Kenwood House [where the real Dido lived]. So I went there—the painting itself wasn’t actually there, it’s up at Scone Palace in Scotland, but I got a postcard of it from the gift shop and hung onto to it. I met Amma a couple of years later, and in the meantime, whenever I’d see Damien, I would always ask him, “What’s happening with Belle?” And after he’d done The Iron Lady, Belle came back into focus. And I met Amma again—she was now attached to direct the film—and auditioned for her. And then I was in L.A. when I found out I got the part.
SAM REID: It was a long saga for Gugu. [laughs] Mine’s a bit different. I was supposed to be playing a Nazi in this film that was kind of weird, and then the whole thing fell apart in a day. But then Belle came through and I read the script and fell in love it, and met Amma, and I had the role. So it was very fast for me.
RAPAZZINI: Did either of you know about the Zong case before the film?
MBATHA-RAW: No, at school there was nothing about this period in history, apart from maybe a Jane Austen novel, so I was really shocked when I find out about the Zong. But having that history in our story grounded it in a gritty reality, because the film is set in such a sumptuous, beautiful, decadent era with so much privilege. Slavery was totally brushed under the carpet in high society; it was this barbaric trade that everybody was benefiting from financially, and houses like Kenwood House were built on the money of slavery, but you never saw it.
REID: It’s the whole idea of being able to call somebody your property. And to go, “It’s cheaper for me to kill this person and get remission from insurance than it is to keep him alive,” is just surreal. It wasn’t that long ago that that was an actual perspective that we had about people. John tells Dido what the Zong ship actually is, and they have a moment where they go, “Wow, I haven’t heard anybody speak like that. I’ve never heard anybody speak like you.” But they’re not allowed to be together. They’re not allowed to even talk. But that’s probably the moment where they realize that they’re in love with each other.
RAPAZZINI: Would you say that you approach a period role differently than a contemporary part?
REID: I think that what these people experience in a period drama is often more heightened, because you’re trying to convey the history and context of the period as well. With a modern film, the context is immediately handed to the audience because we live in it—we all know what it is. But with a period film, you have to explain the world that it’s set in. The emotions, the lines, everything is a bit more heightened, so as an actor, you have to go for it a bit more.
MBATHA-RAW: We approached our story in quite a modern way in order to make it accessible. As soon as you start treating it like an antique, that’s when you distance people. The film contains timeless emotions and timeless dilemmas of working out your identity, who you are, where you fit into society.
REID: With John—and Gugu probably felt the same about Dido—I always felt like he was a man from now in the wrong period.
RAPAZZINI: And how was the shoot? Was it really quick or were you able to spend time together as a cast?
REID: We all hung out a lot. We had some mad dinners in the Isle of Mann. [laughs]
MBATHA-RAW: We did. We started the shoot away from home, so we were all on this small island in the middle of the Irish Sea for three weeks, so that helped us bond quickly. [laughs]
REID: We were mucking in! We went hiking through the mountains and broke into farms and hid under trees when it started raining. [To Mbatha-Raw] Why did we stay there for a really long time under that one tree?
MBATHA-RAW: We got lost!
REID: There was some hysterical laugher when we realized we might need a helicopter rescue. [laughs]
MBATHA-RAW: It was really lovely. There were no airs and graces; our characters have a lot of airs and graces, but the cast was really down to earth. The schedule was very intense. It was seven weeks and I think I was in every single day.
REID: You had one day off, remember? You were like, “I don’t know what to do! I think I should come into set…”
MBATHA-RAW: Yes, I did have one day off [laughs].
RAPAZZINI: And what do you hope the audience walks away from the film feeling or thinking?
MBATHA-RAW: There’s a real sense of hope about the story, in that we can chose our destiny. Dido gives a speech to her uncle, Lord Mansfield [the Lord Chief Justice]: “You are courageous. You’re the one that commissioned this painting [of Dido]; this choice is in your hands.” I think that’s such a great metaphor for life—to have the courage to be who you are, follow your instincts, and not let society stifle you with its antiquated ways.