Period dramas tend to be stuffy, as suffocated as the corsets the ladies wear.
“Belle” boasts the surface beauty of the genre, but it offers more than just a romantic tale, as it explores social and political issues that plagued 1700s England.
It also boasts a radiant turn by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as mixed-race, real-life Dido Elizabeth Belle.
We’re introduced to Dido as a young girl, taken by her father (Matthew Goode) to live with his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), in England.
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They are horrified to learn of her color, though. Yet they take her in, if anything to provide companionship for the other niece they are raising, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon).
But because of Dido’s mixed racial heritage, she is relegated to different treatment than Elizabeth at times, such as not being invited to dine with guests, as that would be “vulgar.”
While waiting to join festivities one night, she is strolling in the yard when she is startled by Mr. Davinier (Sam Reid), the young, idealistic son of a vicar. He has hopes of studying with Lord Mansfield and rising through the ranks as he did to become Lord Chief Justice, the highest ruler of the royal court.
Dido and Davinier are obviously attracted to each other, though don’t admit it. Things are further complicated when Dido is set to marry another man.
This is all told against the backdrop of an important matter. Lord Mansfield must make a ruling on an insurance case that involved the death of slaves. His ruling could be the first step in ending slavery in England and is highly controversial. Does he do what’s right? Or what’s expected?
As Mansfield, Wilkinson is stern yet compassionate. His struggle is captivating. He is the conscience of “Belle.”
But Mbatha-Raw is the heart of it. She instills hope and honor in Dido. Especially as she starts to fall in love. The romance here is richly told, without resorting to contrivances. “Belle” earns its emotions, mostly because of Mbatha-Raw.
Director Amma Asante lets the story unfold in due time. She is certainly juggling a lot of themes related to race, romance, privilege and justice. It never becomes overwhelming, though.
She certainly has a reverence for period pictures, as this is a gorgeously art-directed and costumed drama. But there is much more beneath the surface.