Despite any criticisms one might have of this interesting take on the slavery story (and I have a few), Belle is nonetheless the sort of film which will engage viewers for whom the promise of a top British cast, exquisite frocks and the largely unknown history of an important matter guarantee a good time.
Belle tells the surprisingly true story of a mixed-race orphan raised by her white, aristocratic English family in the late 1700s, when London was a slave-trading centre of industry and Negro heritage was a veritable taint on one’s honour. To the manor born by dint of her father’s status (a sadly too-brief appearance by the wonderful Matthew Goode), young Dido Belle Lindsay is corsetted into beautiful dresses and grows into a cultured and accomplished young woman under the ambivalent patronage of her great uncle (Tom Wilkinson) and aunt (Emily Watson). Despite being loved and allowed to grow up as a playmate to her similarly abandoned cousin, Elizabeth (the rather lovely Canadian actress, Sarah Gadon), Dido is nonetheless hidden away from important dinner guests because her illegitimate, coloured heritage marks her as lower cast. This conflict forms the primary dilemma of a story which is, perhaps understandably for its period, preoccupied with marrying young women off into moneyed, rather than loving, partnerships.
So on the one hand we’ve got a lovely young woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with a hearty dowry whom no one will marry because she’s black – but then who should turn up on a dark night but a well-intentioned, impoverished vicar’s son who wants to deliver the world from the immorality and injustice of slavery. The young couple’s rapport seems at first to be attempting a Darcy-Bennet match à la Pride and Prejudice, complete with misunderstandings and unnecessarily terse words. It’s one of the less well-handled efforts in a story which also posits a ghastly pair of brothers with nary a family resemblance between them, the nasty one played by the evil Malfoy from Harry Potter and the other merely unfanciable. Romantic battles ensue and it might have been more diverting if I had really liked any of the combatants, but alas.
However, the film bolsters the often laboured, self-explanatory script with lively performances from Miranda Richardson and Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton, and Wilkinson and Watson are as reliable as ever. The legal history is indeed interesting, so if heaving bosoms and stunning embroidery are your idea of a jolly period piece, Belle will do nicely.