Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid in Belle.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid in Belle. David Appleby

Movie Belle tells tale of first strike against slavery

A PASSIONATE abolitionist provides a meaty dramatic role for Australian actor Sam Reid in the film Belle.

Reid stars opposite rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the period drama, which follows mixed-race woman Dido, whose great uncle Lord Chief Justice William Murray made a court ruling which became the first step in the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

While Murray's court ruling is real, the bulk of the film is a fictional interpretation of the relationship between Dido and her aristocratic family inspired by a 1779 portrait of Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, which currently hangs at Scone Palace in Scotland.

While she is raised by the Murrays after the prolonged absence and death of her father, a Navy Admiral, Dido is not afforded all of the privileges of high society because of her skin colour and illegitimate birth.

"All the family around her, no matter how much they love her, they're still essentially being racist," Reid told APN.

"They're not able to see past the colour of her skin and they make decisions based on how that holds her place in society."

At the heart of the film, though, is Dido's growing love for abolitionist John Davinier (Reid), who attempts to persuade her uncle to rule that slaves are not a commodity that can be insured. "He's almost as naïve as she is," Reid said.

"He can't even see the colour of her skin. All he sees (at first) is some rich girl.

"Dido is faced with someone who doesn't look at her at all for the colour of her skin, but looks at her for the consequences of her actions."

Mbatha-Raw has already drawn critical praise for her performance as Dido, her first leading role in a feature film.

Reid, now based in the UK, is best known for his breakthrough role in the 2011 film Anonymous and for his role opposite Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton in the American TV mini-series Hatfields & McCoys.

During filming Reid developed a respect for his character and the other abolitionists of the time.

While slavery was illegal in Britain, it was still the economic basis for much of the trade and labour throughout the British Empire.

"To go against public opinion… to sacrifice for other people and the good of humanity was quite a sacrifice," he said.

"Most Britains didn't have to deal with it (slavery) on a daily basis. It was a very refined blindfold that they all wore surrounding the issue, but it was the main source of economy for the whole country."

Belle is in cinemas on Thursday.

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