“Belle” is a movie that instantly joins the ranks of the screen’s great period-piece romances.
Imagine a Jane Austen adaptation, with all its Empire waistlines and romantic longing, but a film in which the obstacles to love are far greater than mere social standing, a story that transcends its comedy-of-manners frame and is actually about something?
“Belle” is loosely based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of an aristocratic white Royal Navy captain (Matthew Goode) and a black woman. That sort of thing happened in 18th century England, but polite people didn’t speak of it. And a child born of such a union faced a hard life of the same drudgery that befell England’s slaves and freed blacks – servants, as a class.
“I am here to take you to a good life,” her father says after her mother, whom he did not marry, dies. And so he does.
Belle, or “Dido,” as her new family calls her, comes to live at Kenwood House in Hampstead. She will be raised by her father’s uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), his wife (Emily Watson), and the lord’s spinster sister (Penelope Wilton of “Downton Abbey”).
Her upbringing will be alternately kind and generous for its day, and circumscribed. “Papa” might say he is doing this “in accordance with your birthright,” but the lord is keenly aware of his times. She will be companion to the other niece they’re raising, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), and enjoy all the education and privilege life has to offer.
But when company comes, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) will dine by herself. No sense shocking the proprieties of their guests.
“Too high in rank to dine with the servants,” Dido grows up to complain, “but too low to dine with the family?”
Hers is a future “without possibility of a suitable marriage.” Smart, talented and unutterably beautiful: They might be writing Dido off a little too easily — even if this was the 18th century.
Tom Felton does a nasty Draco Malfoy-ish turn as a young swell who woos Elizabeth and disapproves of the attentions his brother (James Norton) is giving Dido. Sure, have your fun, he suggests, but one wants “a pure English rose to decorate one’s home.” Still, Dido’s wealth has the boys’ snob of a mother (Miranda Richardson) seeing Dido with a more approving eye.
But Lord Mansfield has bigger things on his mind than mates for his nieces. He is Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and in 1783, all of Britain awaited his ruling on a case involving England’s “most important” business – the slave trade. And whatever tolerance he has developed raising the “cherished” Dido, the wrong ruling on an insurance claim for a cargo of dead slaves could be a bigger blow to the Empire than the recent loss of the American colonies.
Amma Assante’s film is very much a chamber piece, intimate and romantic, full of actors in beautiful period costumes requesting the pleasure of “taking a turn” about the grounds with one other.
But it is breathtakingly ambitious for such a piece, taking us back to that age and letting us see slavery, in all its inhuman ugliness, through Mbatha-Raw’s huge, expressive eyes.
“Belle” is as close to perfect as any costumed romance has a right to be.
* * * * *
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Tom Felton, Miranda Richardson, Sarah Gadon, Sam Reid
Director: Amma Assante
Running time: 1:44
Rated: PG; thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images