The historical drama Belle blends a critical legal moment in England's abolition of slavery with forbidden romance and characters worthy of Jane Austen.
That shouldn't all work, but it does. The criminally underappreciated Tom Wilkinson, the radiant Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the titular Belle, beautiful cinematography and director Amma Asante's steady pace assure its success.
Though at times PG-ified for mass consumption, and in places historically fudgy — the real-life Belle was younger than her on-screen counterpart when this story unfurled, for instance — the filmmakers have nonetheless promised that the major details are unchanged. For a tale this significant, that's important.
Dido Belle, the mixed-race daughter of Maria, a slave, and Royal Navy officer John Lindsay, grows up with her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson) and his wife Lady Mansfield (the underused Emily Watson) in the latter part of the 18th century. Belle's mother has died and her father has been called back out to sea.
A childhood with her "sister-cousin" Elizabeth "Bette" Murray (Sarah Gadon) at Kenwood House in London keeps Belle sheltered, though she isn't allowed to dine with the family or the servants when guests visit — the conundrum of her status and race. We see no beatings in Belle, with the starkest reminders of racism primarily served in insults of "Lord Mansfield's infamous mulatto."
While Lady Elizabeth must find a husband to secure her future, Belle becomes an heiress after her father's death. She doesn't need a husband, but she wants one.
Courting Brits must be naturally adept at sparring verbally. "How would one know the ways of a lady, if one has yet to learn the ways of a gentleman?" Belle snaps at one suitor.
While she and Elizabeth are being courted, Mansfield faces weightier matters. As Lord Chief Justice, he must rule on the case of the Zong Massacre, in which a ship's captain ordered 142 slaves thrown overboard, then attempted to recoup the losses as "damaged cargo" through his insurer. In this role, Wilkinson (twice nominated for Academy Awards) conveys more in a glance or frown than most actors can in two hours of dialog.
The mostly superb cast includes a prerequisite Downton Abbey star in Penelope Wilton as Lady Mary Murray who, if nothing else, provides a reminder to the sister-cousins of what might happen if they don't find a match. Brothers James (Tom Felton) and Oliver (James Norton) play prospective suitors. Felton, best known as Harry Potter's nemesis Draco, shows again that he must be paid per sneer. A more effective villainess is Miranda Richardson as their mother, Lady Ashford, who retorts to one son that "A good family name and empty pockets will only get you so far."
Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay take some risks, connecting the idea of slaves as property to the role of women as property. Sagay gives the 1779 oil portrait of Belle and Bette a significant part in the film, as it proved an inspiration when she saw it while touring Scone Palace in Scotland. The painting of the two girls — one black, one white — struck a chord, and Sagay uncovered its history. Historically, Lord Mansfield is well-known for his 32 years as Lord Chief Justice and his decisions that led to England's abolishing of slavery. However, his part as guardian of his great-niece was discovered largely through that unsigned portrait.
In a time when TMZ brings the latest racist rants of an NBA owner straight into your home, Belle may seem tame, but its accessibility in detailing the racism, sexism and classism of Jane Austen-era London will win you over.
At 105 minutes, the period drama has the decency to be too short. When the credits roll on a film like this — one taking on a serious untold tale — and you're left wanting more, the filmmakers have done their jobs.