Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sam Reid, Tom Wilkinson
Director: Amma Asante
Running Time: 103 mins
Belle is a British film about the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race daughter of a navy Admiral who is taken into the family household by her great-uncle, one of England’s most powerful judges.
On the face of things, this may look like a run-of-the-mill period drama, blending a bit of history with your typical Jane Austen-esque romance and scandal. However, Belle is far, far more than just another generic period piece, impressing hugely with a riveting history that combines an account of a changing society with fascinating legal insight, all the while adding in a dash of romance here and there.
But if there’s one thing that you best know before watching Belle, it’s that it’s more of a historical drama than a typically prim period piece, and while it dazzles with opulent costume and production design and austere dialogue, the film is at its most interesting when it looks at a significant turning point in modern history.
At first, this is a film that tells the true story of a mixed-race woman who was accepted into the English aristocracy in the 18th Century – something almost unheard of – and it gives a good, albeit not necessarily pulsating account of racial prejudice in society at the time.
But while Belle isn’t quite a winner on its portrayal of racism, it hits the nail on the head with the story that it’s actually most interested in telling, and that’s the complex political and legal wrangling surrounding the killing of hundreds of slaves onboard a ship, an event that begins to have ever more impact on Dido’s life.
That part of the story – featuring intense legal battling initially between Sam Reid and Tom Wilkinson’s characters – is absolutely enthralling, and once we see Gugu Mbatha-Raw join the fray with her fantastic performance as Dido, Belle proves itself as a brilliantly cerebral movie, and far more of an impressive historical and legal drama than simply a period piece.
Saying that, however, the film would be lost without a little bit of period drama, and although it does well to keep its core focus on the more complex elements of its story, there’s the opportunity for some respite in the form of some romantic drama.
It’s not quite as cutesy and quaint as the likes of Pride And Prejudice – although its attempts to create a Mr. Darcy/Elizabeth Bennet relationship are a little sickly at times. However, as well as providing a bit of light-hearted entertainment away from some of the heavier drama, the romance ultimately ties in very well to the other side of the story, with Amma Asante’s swift directing bringing two at first very distinct parts of the film together in brilliant style.
As a result, there’s rarely a dull moment with Belle, and although it doesn’t always achieve everything it wants to do perfectly, it’s a far more intelligent film than it appears at first, with the delightful appearance of a period piece eventually opening up into a riveting historical and legal drama, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.8 overall.