Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson
Directed by: Amma Asante (“A Way of Life”)
Written by: Misan Sagay (“The Secret Laughter of Women”)
In the last couple of years, films like “Lincoln” and “12 Years a Slave” have given some important historical context to the subject of slavery in the U.S. and the steps it took to eradicate and overcome it post-Civil War. That shameful part of history, however, was not exclusive to America as we see in “Belle,” a beautifully-shot true-life story set in England where one courageous woman attempts to understand where she fits in society since both her rank and ethnicity seem to contradict each other.
In “Belle,” actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as the title character, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral (Matthew Goode) who is called back out to sea and decides to leave his motherless young child in the hands of her wealthy great uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), and his wife (Emily Watson) despite their initial objection. As Belle grows up, she finds herself stuck in a sort of no man’s land of social status. While Belle’s lineage gives her privileges, she is not allowed, for example, to dine with the family when they have company or be matched with a suitor of equal rank because of the controversy it may stir up.
While much of “Belle” follows along the same path as most Jane Austen-inspired costume dramas, it’s not all that makes up this exquisite era piece. Sure, Belle is just as desperate to find a man as any of the Bennett sisters (although she hides it fairly well), but there’s more to this heroine than a fairy-tale ending. She knows there are more pressing issues in the world than finding the ideal husband. When she meets aspiring lawyer and abolitionist John Davinier (Sam Reid), she is introduced to a host of cases (in particular, one where a slave ship owner kills his slaves for the insurance money) that open her eyes even more to the injustices people like her mother faced their entire lives.
Anchored by a strong performance by Mbatha-Raw, “Belle” comes up short on an emotional level, which is surprising given the topics raised, but is fascinating enough to keep our attention on the more historically significant points rather than the conventional romance. There are still corsets, yes, but director Amma Asante’s (“A Way of Life”) ability to loosen them up a bit so our main character can fight the good fight is reason enough to stay invested in this little-known history lesson.