Thanks to the barrage of Brit-lit adaptations - Jane Austen or otherwise - hitting the screen for some time now, we've come to expect our British period pieces to tackle issues of classism and sexism. Belle, however, is different in that it also adds racism to the stack.
Loosely based on a true story, this begins with naval officer John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) collecting his illegitimate daughter from her impoverished, motherless existence and placing her in the care of his kin, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson). As Lindsay explains, the little girl's name is Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, and as the Mansfields can see, she's the product of a mixed-race coupling. As Lindsay's occupation requires him to be away from England, the Lord and Lady promise to raise Dido alongside their other niece, Elizabeth.
They fulfill their promise ... to a point. Like Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is given a proper upbringing and education, and she and Elizabeth consider themselves both sisters and best friends. But whenever the Mansfields entertain guests at dinner, Dido must eat by herself, since the rules of propriety do not allow someone of her color to sup with her white family (and yet her standing forbids her from eating with the servants, either). Dido struggles to find her place in the world, and her crisis of identity is further stirred when John Davinier (Sam Reid), the idealistic son of a clergyman, informs her that the Lord Mansfield, England's leading judicial voice, is overseeing a case involving a shipload of slaves who might have been drowned for the insurance money.
Whereas many filmmakers would have fashioned Dido's story through the eyes of, say, her Caucasian cousin Elizabeth (see Million Dollar Arm), director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay make the story uniquely her own. In this respect, they benefit from the selection of British TV star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who holds the screen with her impassioned portrayal. Her character serves as the lightning rod for most of the film's issues, yet Asante and Sagay have crafted a picture rich enough to illuminate the struggles of others as well. As a reverend's son, Davinier is considered beneath noble blood, and while Elizabeth may be kind and beautiful, the fact that she has no dowry makes her undesirable in the eyes of many of the men surrounding her.
The story's beats are, on the whole, predictable: For instance, because Dido and Davinier are initially antagonistic toward one another, the rules of romantic cinema dictate that they will eventually fall in love. Yet by adding an extra coat of moral outrage onto a tried and true framework, Belle succeeds in relating its worthy tale of pride and prejudice.
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