Cinema history is full of movies that have examined slavery in America, the most recent being the Oscar-winning "12 Years a Slave." The new feature, "Belle," shows that slavery was also a great concern to the British.
The enchanting Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Dido Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy officer in the 18th century. Her father takes her to his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), where she will be raised.
This house guest proves influential as Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, will one day rule on a court case that could forever change the practice of slavery in England.
The movie is inspired by a 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, which means writer Misan Sagay had to take great liberties with the script. Other than the image in the painting, little is known about Belle. Sagay fleshes out both the political elements and the personal story through a forward-thinking aspiring lawyer who comes into the life of Belle and Mansfield.
Under the direction of Amma Asante, "Belle" unfolds like a trip to an art museum. Each scene depicted tells a story about the political, social, financial and civil battles of the time as delivered through larger-than-life characters. Asante tends to ignore the spaces between the scenes that could have been used to offer more detail about how important Mansfield's ruling was on the country.
Instead, there's more attention paid to the importance of stature (i.e., money) when it came to social life. This is played out with a light touch through the efforts of Miranda Richardson's character, Lady Ashford, when trying to find the properly wealthy wives for her sons. Her change in opinion about Belle comes too quickly and that eliminates some of the racial conflicts that could have added more tension to the film. The perfect foil for Lady Ashford is there in the Lady Mansfield character, played with great strength by Emily Watson.
Wilkinson and Mbatha-Raw do much better jobs getting across the serious elements of the film. Mbatha-Raw conveys the understanding Belle has about her situation and the longing to rise above her current station.
Her best scenes are with Wilkinson. He plays Mansfield as a man who intellectually understands the ways of the world and the financial impact slavery has on the country. Wilkinson's emotion also gives Mansfield a human quality. Mansfield is caught between two worlds but comes across strong enough to handle the pressure.
"Belle" treats racism with kid gloves. Because of that approach, the film ends up little more than a light period drama. It's good, but it never reaches the dark political and emotional tones of a movie like "12 Years a Slave."
"Belle," rated PG for thematic elements, smoking. Stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson. Directed by Amma Asante. Running time: 105 minutes. Grade: B