Belle (2013) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images
Running Time: 104 min.
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, Sam Reid, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, James Norton, Tom Felton, Matthew Goode
Director: Albert Sharpe, Amma Asante
Screenplay: Misan Sagay
Review published May 19, 2014
England in the latter half of the 18th Century. It was a time of bustling slave industry, and not at all the sort of place where a person of African descent, even a free one with noble lineage, could feel welcome by a society that eschewed even white commoners habitually.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Odd Thomas, "Touch") stars as Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a white Royal Naval officer named John Lindsay (Goode, Stoker) and a black woman with whom he had an affair in the West Indies. Feeling responsible for his daughter, gentleman Sir Lindsay gets his child and drops her off at the home of his well-to-do uncle (Wilkinson, The Lone Ranger) and aunt (Watson, Anna Karenina), Lord and Lady Mansfield, along with her white similarly aged niece, Elizabeth Murray (Gadon, Enemy), where she will grow up in a household that loves her, but one that knows that there may not be much of a future for a mixed-race child in the very status-oriented Britain of the time.
Fast forward to their young adulthood and we find Dido and Elizabeth at an age when they will most likely be in the hunt for appropriate suitors to come a-courting. Though Dido's romantic future seems bleak, an avenue opens up with the poor son (Norton, Rush) of a respected but initially disapproving family takes an interest, while she also catches the eye of an abolitionist lawyer named John Davinier (Reid, The Railway Man) who happens to be trying to get Lord Mansfield to rule against a company who may have deliberately drowned their diseased slaves for insurance money (aka, the "Zong massacre").
Amma Asante (A Way of Life) directs this Austen-esque period piece, based a few true events, though most of the film is a work of fanciful fiction. Parallels are drawn between slavery as a commodity and the lives of young women of the time, who were seen as property to be "sold off" to the most suitable bidders for their hands in marriage. It's a film, not just about race, but about class and gender as well, and how the station one's born in will practically determine the ease by which one's life will proceed, for no other reason than societal norms and traditions.
Screenwriter Misan Sagay (Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Secret Laughter of Women) eloquently makes the most out of the story about this person to which little is known, save for a famous 1779 portrait of her and her cousin that currently hands in Scotland -- an unusual art piece that gives its African subject equal footing with her European counterpart. As such, much more commentary comes into play regarding her views on race, and in tying her story together with the possibility of having a hand in the eventual abolition of slavery, it give this story a great reverent appeal. Interestingly, though the country is rife with prejudiced people, it's an interesting commentary, which still holds well today, how those prejudices get brushed aside when it comes to matters of wealth and stature.
Belle is greatly benefitted from a superb cast of character actors with not a bad performer in the bunch. A captivating Mbatha-Raw holds her own along with the veterans, ultimately becoming the film's greatest surprise. Tom Wilkinson is especially compelling as the judge whose sense of duty to uphold tradition become conflicted by his feelings for Dido, who has come to show as fact that there really isn't a difference between races except that which society thrusts upon them.
It's a handsome film filled with elegant people, lush locales and sumptuous costumes. "Downton Abbey" fans will likely approve of this mannered drama, though the film carries that extra unique quality that delves into the all-important (and oft-neglected) race relations of its era. Despite some acknowledgement that the storyline has been contorted to fit a traditional narrative story arc, and the fact that we know where the story is eventually going to lead long before all of the pieces come into play, Belle hits the right notes at the right times to please fans of 'hoity-toity' period piece dramas.
©2014 Vince Leo