Looking at the evil of slavery through an interesting viewpoint to notice, “Belle” tells us an engaging drama based on the life of a real-life figure who grew up under an extraordinary circumstance. While she was kindly accepted into the upper class as her father wanted, she still remains as an outsider due to her origin, and she sees more of her conflicting situation as being more aware of her racial identity – and the injustice she cannot simply ignore like some people around her.
The movie tells us the life story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mulatto girl who was an illegitimate child of a British Navy officer. Although she lost her mother during her early childhood, her father Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) brings her to England while dutifully recognizing her as his daughter, and then he asks his uncle William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), who is also the 1st Earl of Mansfield, and William’s wife Lady Elizabeth (Emily Watson) to take care of his child while he is doing his duty outside Britain.
Because it is the late 18th century when slave trade was one of the prominent businesses in the British Empire and colored people were regarded as the individuals not equal to white people, Lord Mansfield and his wife and his sister Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton) are understandably not so pleased about taking a colored girl into their house as their family member, but they eventually accept Sir John’s sincere plea, so Dido is allowed to grow up with Lord Mansfield’s another grandniece Elizabeth while receiving the same education to be a proper high society lady.
We soon see Dido having grown up enough to marry someone, and Dido, who is now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw from this point, is as hopeful as her dear cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), but these spirited girls soon face the difficulties which will surely remind you of those complicated situations experienced by many of Jane Austen’s heroines. While Elizabeth must find someone who can marry her even though she does not have money to bring in, Dido’s situation seems more hopeless; although she receives a considerable sum of money from her recently deceased father as her dowry, it is highly possible that nobody in her class wants to marry her because of her race.
As she and Elizabeth prepare themselves as debutantes, Dido is more reminded of the line between her and others. Lord Mansfield and the other family members respect her as their equal family member with care and love, but they have to be contradictory as following the customs along with other members of their class, so Dido has to be left alone outside while her family and the guests are having a dinner in the manor. After the dinner, she is allowed to meet the dinner guests along with her family, but we can clearly see the guests’s condescending attitude through her eyes, and she comes to realize that she may follow the footsteps of her great aunt Lady Mary, an old spinster who has been depending on her brother for many years.
Feeling like a more social-conscious version of Jane Austen novel, the movie slowly incorporates its serious social subject into the story as Lord Mansfield, who has been the Lord Chief of Justice for years, happens to preside on the case involved with the infamous Zong massacre in 1781. It seems the crew of slave ship Zong threw more than 100 slaves into the ocean just because these slaves became useless cargos due to the crew’s fault, and this incident draws public attention through abolitionists as a legal battle continues between the owners of Zong and their insurance company.
After learning about the Zong massacre through John Davinier (Sam Reid), a local pastor’s son who comes to clash with his supporter Lord Mansfield due to his idealistic view, Dido comes to think more about her identity, and she and John gradually find themselves attracted to each other as spending more time with each other, but their romance is blocked by several complications. While he is not yet a proper gentleman with job, John is currently engaged to a local girl pushed to him by his mother, and Dido also gets engaged to Oliver Ashrod (James Norton). Oliver’s mother and brother are not so enthusiastic about this engagement mainly due to their racist prejudice, but they decide to be a little more flexible in front of Dido’s dowry, and Oliver looks like a good match for Dido, though this nice guy is a little too insensitive when talking about her race.
With Misan Sagay’s thoughtful screenplay which balances itself well between lightweight romance and serious drama, the director Amma Asante made a number of good scenes as her heroine becomes more active and determined in her struggle to find a place in her world, and the movie makes an especially interesting point when Dido comes to notice the double constraints on her social position. While she is not treated as an equal person because she is a slave’s daughter, she and Elizabeth and many other women in their time do not have many choices in their life as if they were virtual slaves; they get married in the end, or they are destined to live alone without much hope for their life.
Surrounded many recognizable veteran performers, Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a powerful performance as the strong center of the story. She is always convincing and commanding as her character goes through gradual inner transformation along the story, and I guess we will probably see more of this talented actress in the future considering her good works in this film and “Beyond the Lights” (2014). While Sam Reid and Sarah Gadon are also solid in their respective scenes with Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Matthew Goode, and Emily Watson are dependable as usual, and Wilkinson is especially touching as subtly conveying us his character’s complex sides behind his calm, resolute appearance.
I later learned of many notable differences between the movie and the real-life story of its heroine, but “Belle” still works as a well-made fiction told well through competent direction and excellent performances, and I found myself touched by the emotions generated from its several dramatic scenes. Although certainly feeling lightweight compared to “12 Years a Slave” (2013), the movie has its own interesting story to tell, and it deserves to be watched for many good reasons including one of the breakout performances of this year.