Belle takes place in 18th century England, where young Dido Elizabeth Belle – the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of the Royal Navy Captain, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) – is left by her father in the care of his relatives: the Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) and Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) who, by and large, raise Dido as they would their own daughter, along with her cousin, Elizabeth. However, despite having most of the privileges afforded to the aristocracy, Dido is always treated as something of an outsider due to her racial heritage.
Belle was inspired by the 1779 painting of the real Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray, as well as the social/legal issues surrounding the case of the Zong massacre (which helped bring about the end of slavery in England). The film unfolds as a blend of historical romance genre (read: melodrama based on class tension, forbidden love, etc.) with a narrative that examines the legal and economic realities of the slave trade – which is juxtaposed with a look at the social institution of marriage in the 18th century. If Downton Abbey and Amistad were to have a baby together, it might resemble Belle, so to speak
The final result is a mold-breaking film that offers all the appeal of a handsome period drama, combined with a different, but insightful, perspective on the subject of race-based social inequality. It’s not a flawless union, for sure, though director Amma Asante (A Way of Life) and screenwriter Misan Sagay (Their Eyes Were Watching God) are mostly successful with their amalgamation. Part of that success can be attributed to the cast, led by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (recently seen on the Undercovers and Touch TV series); with her soulful eyes and expressive mannerisms, Raw brings the eponymous Belle to life – making her journey to emotional and political-awareness an engaging one.
Asante and director of photography Ben Smithard (My Week with Marilyn) cleverly light and frame much of Belle as if it were a collection of portraits, enhancing the symbolism of a recurring motif in the film – portraits depicting the aristocracy. It also makes for a lovely film to look at, when combined with refined production design by Simon Bowles (Hyde Park on Hudson) and richly-colorful costumes by Anushia Nieradzik (Hunger). The plot also moves along at a steady and surprisingly brisk pace, courtesy of editors Victoria Boydell (Blood) and Pia Di Ciaula (Tyrannosaur) – though, the downside of that is Belle doesn’t spend quite as much time developing a sense of atmosphere, nor the characters or themes, as might’ve been desirable.
As mentioned before, though, the strong performances in Belle help to fill in the gaps in the storytelling, led by the promising leading turn from Raw – whose vulnerability and intensity is matched through the performance by Sam Reid (The Railway Man), as well as by the character he plays. The film also boasts solid work by reliable character actors Emily Watson (War Horse) and Tom Wilkinson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), as well as Sarah Gadon (A Dangerous Method) and Miranda Richardson (Parade’s End) – the latter playing Lady Ashford, the woman whose sons are potential suitors for Dido and Elizabeth.
James Norton (Rush) as Oliver Ashford – a man whose interest in Dido is based mostly on her looks – brings a bit more depth and charm to his somewhat thinly-sketched character; unfortunately, Tom Felton as his brother, James, basically plays a real-world version of his Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter – which, in Belle, feels a bit too hammy and out of place. Meanwhile, Penelope Wilton (a Downton Abbey alum, appropriately) helps to emotionally ground Dido and Elizabeth’s strict caretaker, Lady Mary Murray – and last, but not least, Matthew Goode makes the most of his brief screen time, as Dido’s kindly biological father.
Asante’s direction, combined with fine work from her cast and collaborators behind the camera, helps to temper the melodramatic tendencies of Belle. This allows for the film to provide a solid viewing experience – one that varies from restrained to being more impassioned, when appropriate. In fairness, Belle might be a little too polite, for those who prefer their period dramas to be more souped up; at the same time, though, it has an intelligence that should make it more appealing to those moviegoers who aren’t usually so keen on this sort of corset period drama.