Director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay dance a fine line with the film, which is melodramatic in the best of British ways—people scream “I love her!” dramatically, breathe dramatically, glare dramatically, do practically everything dramatically—but also very subtle in its characterizations. As Belle, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (of “Larry Crowne”) is fantastic; she can show you everything she’s feeling in her face, and her outbursts of pride, fury, and defensiveness help ground the film in very real emotion. At one point toward the end of the film, she smiles—really smiles, for the first time—and if you could this woman all the joy in the world, you would.
And her excellent performance is surrounded by numerous others: Matthew Goode appears for only a few minutes as her father, but you’ll remember his kind eyes; Tom Wilkinson, as Belle’s guardian Lord Mansfield, is a solid mix of paternal concern and upright British rule-following; Penelope Wilton as Belle’s unmarried governess Aunt Mary adds a little bit of silver-tongued rebelliousness to the family structure; and Sam Reid, as Belle’s love interest John Davinier, is passionate and genteel, on top of being extremely handsome. What works best about “Belle” is that it’s very much a typical British period piece, of pretty people in pretty clothes struggling to do the right thing in life, but the film addresses class, race, and sexism in an upfront way you rarely see in these productions. It’s not a soap opera.
The film focuses on Dido Belle (Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate daughter of British naval Capt. Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode); when her mother, a slave, dies, Lindsay finds her and brings her to live with his childless aunt and uncle, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson, of “The Book Thief” and “Anna Karenina”) and Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson, of “The Lone Ranger”), who happens to be the highest-ranking judge in all of the United Kingdom. They’re already in charge of another young girl, John’s brother’s daughter Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “The Nut Job”), who they are raising with the help of the unmarried Aunt Mary (Wilton). Although they’re shocked that John would think they could essentially adopt a biracial child into their family and aristocratic society without raising any eyebrows, John won’t acquiesce an inch; “I am not ashamed … know in your heart you were loved,” he tells his daughter. (Goode isn’t in the film for long, but oh, does he make an impression.)
So Dido becomes one of the family, growing up to be a “sister-cousin” to Elizabeth and essentially a daughter for the Mansfields and Aunt Mary; she’s witty, kind, and educated, but when it’s time for her and Elizabeth to find suitable husbands, her guardians don’t think she’ll be able to find anyone. Because essentially, Dido exists in a middle space: In the household, she’s clearly higher-ranked than the help, and she’s treated as a proper member of the family when she’s around her relatives. But around other people, Dido can’t be seen as on the same level, so she eats in another room when guests visit because the family doesn’t want to “impose” her upon other “proper” members of British society. That means, of course, that the “proper” British men who come calling for Elizabeth’s hand react varyingly to Dido: “I find her repulsive,” says one, while his brother fetishizes her as a “rare and exotic flower.” How can she ever find a husband when these are the pickings?
At the same time, Lord Mansfield is working on a judicial decision regarding the Zong massacre, in which the crew of the slaving ship Zong drowned more than 100 slaves and then tried to collect how much they were worth by insurance companies when they returned to the United Kingdom. He’s assisted by a young man he takes under his legal tutelage, John Davinier (Reid), whose religious background and sense of humanism drive him to believe that all people, whether black or white, should be treated equally. It’s certainly an unpopular opinion at the time, but for Dido, it’s a revelation.
So there’s the growing attraction between Dido and Davinier while other men try to court her; Elizabeth’s struggles finding a husband because her father has left her penniless, meaning she has no dowry to offer a potential suitor; and Lord Mansfield’s anxiety over delivering such an important decision regarding slavery and the British economy. There’s a lot going on, certainly, but “Belle” does a good job connecting all the storylines within the same themes of class, race, and gender, comparing Elizabeth and Dido, Lord Mansfield and Davinier, Davinier and Dido’s other suitors, and so forth; there’s a constant push-pull between these characters, and how they are defined in relation to each other is fascinating.
There are a couple of scenes that truly stand out, though, and the power of the film is encapsulated in them: Dido staring into a mirror and pushing and pulling on her skin, trying to hold back sobs after a particularly rude altercation with a family of very rich racists; Dido and Elizabeth sitting together for a family portrait and Davinier observing them from afar (the painting still exists, and is beautiful); Dido standing in a courtroom amid a sea of white, judgmental men, shocked at her unafraid presence among them. There is impact in those moments, and “Belle” makes the most of them.
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