“Belle” manages to address issues of social justice and racism as its characters flounce around in silk gowns and attend garden parties.
Directed by Amma Asante and written by Misan Sagay, “Belle” follows Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the daughter of an African slave and a British navy captain, as she grows up in her deceased father’s British aristocratic family. Along the way, Dido faces barriers due to her illegitimate social status and race. Her great aunt Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) and uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) prohibit her from dining with the rest of the family when guests visit, yet Belle is courted by eligible aristocrats when she is left her father’s fortune.
Though these aspects of the film are fascinating and gut-wrenching, the crux of the plot is Lord Mansfield’s involvement as chief justice in the historical court case Gregson v. Gilbert. This case was a crucial element in the foundation for the abolitionist movement in Britain, inspiring passion from both opponents of slavery and those who profited from the slave trade. In “Belle,” one such vocal opponent of slavery, John Davinier (Sam Reid), adds additional intrigue to the plot by becoming one of Dido’s love interests as Dido learns about the case.
Full disclosure: I am predisposed to like any period romance, especially those that involve characters who wear pearls and go to tea. “Belle” fits those criteria and adds supplementary layers of historical urgency and a fast-paced plot. Though I already knew the verdict of the court case, the plot points and accomplished acting of “Belle” managed to give me misgivings about which way the judge would rule. It also added an emotional human side to the court case: Dido’s horror at learning about the case and the desperation with which she advocated flooded me with sympathy for her.
The tensions between characters, especially Dido and her half-sister Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) were well-thought out as well. When I watched “Belle,” there were audible gasps and outcries in the movie theater as Dido and Elizabeth fought over suitors and launched personal attacks at each other. A similar confrontation between Dido and Elizabeth’s racist suitor, James Ashford (Tom Felton) was startling and frightening.
Asante and Sagay have created a stunning period film that toys with its viewers emotions, adds a human side to history and informs its audience about an important issue. The acting is superb, the social interactions are gripping (if at times disturbing) and, of course, the ball gowns are breathtaking.