“Belle” is the story of the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy admiral and an African slave who is raised in English privilege by her great uncle.
True enough, but that’s barely a hint of what unfolds in this visually beautiful period movie with an undercurrent of far more complexity than just social disapproval.
Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) are raising two nieces – one is Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw); the other is Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). In a lovely bit of irony, Dido has an inheritance from her parents while Elizabeth has none.
As the girls face the marriage marketplace, Elizabeth enters the competition with looks, breeding and worry, born of her empty pockets while Dido enters with looks, mixed race illegitimacy and disinterest enabled by her inheritance.
While the girls grow up as equals in family love and privilege, Dido must eat alone when visitors come in order to avoid violating the prevailing culture publicly. Their world is sprinkled with calculating mothers of prospective suitors (Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford) for both girls. In the race to become the property of an eligible man, Dido’s inheritance permits a marriage for love. Of the Ashfords she says, “My greatest misfortune would be to marry into a family who would carry me as their shame.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is perfect as Belle. Her own natural grace and intelligence allow her to infuse Belle with an interesting mix of the necessary acceptance shot through at times with her scrappy spirit. This is an actress who will be able to handle whatever roles come her way, and come they will. She’s that good.
For much of its length, “Belle” is a familiar ramble through the privilege enjoyed by the British aristocracy. Sunlit lawns glisten and generations stroll as they play their roles in the social competition. Quite suddenly, after mere hints of an unfamiliar turn to come, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield is presiding over the King’s Bench while England waits for his decision in a case where an entire shipload of slaves had been thrown into the sea in order to collect cargo insurance.
At this point Belle and her idealistic new love, John Davinier (Sam Reid), son of a vicar, confront Lord Mansfield with impassioned pleas about the reality of the corruption and the stain of slavery. And then we have the grand pleasure of watching the ever-fine Tom Wilkinson navigate his own value system to a decision that became England’s first step in abolishing slavery. This was 1783, eight decades before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
You will see a lovely period costume drama that is invigorated – in the hands of director Amma Asante – by historical events usually absent from such films. England is abuzz with fallout from the recent loss of the American Colonies and from a national debate that leads the country to the abolition of slavery. The outside world has entered the gates of Kenwood in Hampstead.