“Belle” presents a familiar message in a unique context.
Unlike the many slavery-era period pieces that contrast the lives and culture of African-American slaves with the free world around them, “Belle’s” story of race takes place entirely within the realm of British aristocracy.
The film’s title refers to its protagonist, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate daughter of an English Captain (Matthew Goode). Belle is taken in by her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) as a child just a few years before the start of the American Revolution. Illegitimacy is a challenge enough, but Belle’s mother also happened to be black, and her child’s place in the home quickly becomes an issue, particularly since Lord Mansfield is a Lord Chief Justice of Britain.
In spite of some unequal treatment — for example, Belle isn’t allowed to dine with the rest of the family when guests are present — she grows up alongside her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), enjoying the fruits of privilege, and she eventually comes to exemplify all the virtues of a lady. When her father dies, she is also left with a generous endowment. This sets up a challenging plot that interweaves issues of race and class when multiple suitors show romantic interest in Belle, especially since her cousin lacks a similar financial advantage. One suitor is a young man from another wealthy family (James Norton), but the true object of her affections is John Davinier (Sam Reid), who is the son of a vicar and is studying law under Lord Mansfield.
Again, the message and theme are familiar, but the unique perspective — the film is based on a true story and was inspired by a painting of the two cousins — offers something audiences haven’t seen before. According to the film, Belle’s situation contributed to the eventual ending of slavery in England.
Even though the film takes place around the time of the American Revolution, there is no explicit mention of the conflict across the ocean where similar racial issues were playing out in more vivid detail. But even if a colonial parallel might have offered additional insight, “Belle’s” focused setting creates an effective illustration of the insular British aristocracy.
It’s also interesting to note how Lord Mansfield’s treatment of Davinier is almost more dismissive than any struggle he has with Belle’s racial identity. The myriad of issues and conflicts in “Belle” makes sure that no one feels singled out as a target of scorn for too long.
Mbatha-Raw does a nice job in her role, balancing the innocence, grace and confusion in her character. Wilkinson brings his usual gravity to Lord Mansfield, and Harry Potter fans might be pleased to spot a familiar face (Tom Felton) in the supporting cast.
With its unique perspective and director Amma Asante’s choice to avoid heavy-handedness, “Belle” is an effective vehicle for its message. There are certainly more harrowing and bold cinematic statements on race relations available to filmgoers, but “Belle” does a nice job of carving out its particular niche in the genre.
“Belle” is rated PG for some language and sensuality.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.