“Belle” is a movie that instantly joins the ranks of the screen’s great period-piece romances.
Imagine a Jane Austen adaptation, with all its Empire waistlines and romantic longing, but a story that transcends its comedy of manners frame and is actually about something?
“Belle” is loosely based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of an aristocratic white Royal Navy captain (Matthew Goode) and a black woman.
That sort of thing happened in 18th century England, but polite people didn’t speak of it. And a child born of such a union faced the same hard life of drudgery that befell England’s slaves and freed blacks — servants, as a class.
“I am here to take you to a good life,” her father says after her mother, whom he did not marry, dies. And so he does.
“Dido,” as her new family calls her, will be raised by her father’s uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), his wife (Emily Watson), and the lord’s spinster sister (Penelope Wilton of “Downton Abbey”).
DIRECTED BY: Amma Assante
STARRING: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Tom Felton, Miranda Richardson, Sarah Gadon and Sam Reid
RATED: PG GRADE: A
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
Her upbringing will be alternately kind and generous for its day, and circumscribed. She will be companion to the other niece they’re raising, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), and enjoy all the education and privilege life has to offer.
But when company comes, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) will dine by herself. No sense shocking the proprieties of their guests.
“Too high in rank to dine with the servants,” Dido grows up to complain, “but too low to dine with the family?”
Hers is a future “without possibility of a suitable marriage.” Smart, talented and unutterably beautiful: They may be writing Dido off a little too easily — even if this was the 18th century.
Tom Felton does a nasty Draco Malfoy-ish turn as a young swell who woos Elizabeth and disapproves of the attentions his brother (James Norton) is giving Dido. Sure, have your fun, he suggests, but one wants “a pure English Rose to decorate one’s home.” Still, Dido’s wealth has the boys’ snob of a mother (Miranda Richardson) seeing Dido with a more approving eye.
But Lord Mansfield has bigger things on his mind than mates for his nieces. He is Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and in 1783 all of Britain awaited his ruling on a case involving England’s “most important” business — the slave trade.
Amma Assante’s film is a chamber piece, intimate and romantic, full of actors in beautiful period costumes. But it is breathtakingly ambitious for such a piece, taking us back to that age and letting us see slavery, in all its inhuman ugliness, through Mbatha-Raw’s huge, expressive eyes.
Beautifully cast, touchingly played and handsomely mounted, “Belle” is as close to perfect as any costumed romance has a right to be.