Inspired by true events, BELLE tells the story of a mixed race woman named Dido Elizabeth Belle who is born the illegitimate daughter of a British Royal Navy Admiral. Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) only knows her father for a few moments before he sets sail, leaving her in the care of her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). With wealth and lineage supporting her, Dido exists in a unique yet lonely layer of England’s class-conscious society, above slaves and commoners, but never truly accepted by the aristocracy because of the color of her skin. After meeting a vicar’s son, Dido finds both her passions and her convictions ignited, and her beliefs are soon pitted against Lord Mansfield’s as the fate of slavery in England hangs in the balance.
Often with dramatic period pieces, performances are stilted and dialogue is unwieldy, a symptom of filmmakers struggling with showcasing propriety while still allowing characters to be believable and engaging. BELLE avoided such conventions, allowing the cast to wear their characters as comfortably as an old, broken-in jacket. The dialogue at the beginning of the film is perhaps a bit stilted, but this seems intentional as a means to show Dido conforming to high-society’s guidelines. As she finds her own path, the film progressively opens up, allowing a full range of emotions, from joy, to self-hatred, to love, to uncertainty to rule the characters.
The comedic beats in BELLE were the most surprising, and most welcome, addition. Penelope Wilton has very little overall screen time, but every second that she portrays Lady Mary Murray, the spinster governess who manages Kenwood House, is comedic gold. Director Amma Asante allows Wilton’s nuanced facial expressions and impeccable sense of timing provide mirth to a film the juggles weighty issues. Miranda Richardson is also at the top of her game here, playing a money-hungry noble with her eyes on Dido’s fortune.
As the titular Belle, Gugu Mbatha-Raw emerges as a powerhouse of an actress with the right blend of charisma and poise to nail her performance. Perhaps the most powerful scene of the film features Mbatha-Raw facing a mirror, slowly and mournfully trying to wipe away her skin color. While this isn’t exactly a novel sequence in and of itself, Mbatha-Raw wisely chooses to use a subtle hand during this scene instead of giving way to maudlin over-acting or histrionics. This helps cement Dido’s confusion; she feels both cursed by her skin color, and blessed than she is awarded freedoms that are awarded to neither black women nor wealthy white women who are forced to marry as soon as they come of age.
Despite my praise, BELLE is not a perfect movie. The sound design is awkward, with the film’s beautiful score often blaring over scenes that might thrive with a more subtle approach, and Tom Felton is a bit too on-the-nose as the dastardly James Ashford. Still, these are minor quibbles. BELLE is a most satisfying film, one that is pleasing to both the eye and to the heart, and should not be missed by any fans of historical dramas.
BELLE can be seen in limited markets now, with theatrical openings in Austin at Violet Crown Cinema and Regal Arbor Cinemas on 5/23/14.
4 / 5