WRITTEN BY: Misan Sagay
DIRECTED BY: Amma Asante
STARRING: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson
RATING: 3.5 stars
You may have read/heard reports that describe Belle as Jane Austen for “black” people. It is a fair assessment, but “white” people can enjoy it just as much. Based on a true story, Misan Sagay has written a witty film that also depicts some interesting history of slavery in England. Director Amma Asante balances the different layers of the story very well. Although the plot is centred around one protagonist, there are a lot of issues and themes explored in the film. This period piece is both a romantic coming of age story and a lesson in human rights.
Set in 18th century England, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate mixed race daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). He asks his aristocratic uncle Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice (Tom Wilkinson), and his wife (Emily Watson) to raise the young girl. Belle does not quite fit in with any class due to her mixed race. Her skin colour means she is too high in rank to dine with the servants but too low to dine with guests. When Belle meets idealist John Davinier (Sam Reid), who wants to change the laws to make all races equal, he opens her eyes to racial issues through the infamous Zong slave ship case.
As well as presenting the racial justice story, Belle also explores the pressures women faced in the 18th century, requiring them to marry wealthy men or risk being penniless. This is where the Jane Austen aspect comes into the story. Dido has a dowry from her father but her blonde cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), with whom she has been raised, has no money from her own father, which provides an interesting twist to the marriage side of the plot.
Mbatha-Raw's exceptional beauty is matched by her convincing performance as Belle. She is a strong heroine and her character arc is fascinating. Davinier gives a solid performance as Sam, who is such an endearing character with intelligence, idealism, principles and romanticism. Wikinson and Watson have some great scenes together and their experience as actors grounds the film.
Although Belle is a little too long, those who love historical romantic dramas will find value in its story.