By William Wolf


Good acting and a convincing late 18th century setting in England make “Belle” special. It is a film that explores the role of slavery in an unusual way, as well as a love story involving principles as well as passion. Directed by Amma Asante, it has an intelligent and compelling screenplay by Misan Sagay that is inspired by a true story.

Gugu Mbatha Raw gives a lovely, warm and spirited performance as Dido Elizabeth Belle, who is the offspring of a British admiral and a black Caribbean slave. When Belle’s mother dies, her father, before going off to sea and the fate that awaits him, arranges for her to be brought up in his family surroundings with full aristocratic rights. The admiral’s great uncle, Lord Mansfield, a top level jurist played with the skill we have come to expect from Tom Wilkinson, shudders at the idea of a slave child in the midst, but faithful to his duty and basically a very decent human being, he takes the girl under his wing, abetted by his wife (Emily Watson) and sees to it that Belle is raised properly. Of course, this causes tension with relatives and acquaintances, and despite the loving care she receives, Belle is not allowed to dine together when guests are invited to dinner. And how can a marriage be arranged for such a young lady? Not to mention the matter of inheritance.

Belle bonds with the adopted Elizabeth, nicely played by Sarah Gordon, but the situation leads to rivalry. Ultimately, Belle meets John Davinier (Sam Reid), an idealistic young man who is aided by Lord Mansfield in his pursuit of a law career, but they battle as a result of their respective viewpoints. Belle and her amour meet a crisis when a current issue of slavery involving a terrible event at sea hits the courts in an effort to fix responsibility.

Naturally, the case comes up before Lord Wilkinson, and the question posed is whether he will rule according to his conservative background or hold the shipping company responsible for the deaths of slaves being transported despite the pressure from business and the insurance industry. (Take a guess.) Belle and John play a role in making sure that important evidence surfaces.

The events and the high drama bring the issue of slavery strongly to the fore, and the romantic mixture with its potential for further interracial marriage heightens the personal and sociological stakes. The well-made film is engrossing throughout. The illustrious cast includes Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Tom Felton, James Norton and Matthew Goode. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Review posted October 22, 2013.


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