Jane Austen and Julian Fellowes (creator of “Downton Abbey”) enjoy wide audiences for their British-based social fictions; economists debating the role of the Atlantic slave trade in building the British Empire have a far smaller fan base.
That explains why “Belle” is marketed as the story of the beautiful interracial daughter (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) of an English admiral, who is raised in the late 1700s by her uncle, an aristocrat and a judge, rather than as an English courtroom drama on whether slaves should be considered cargo or people.
Marketing aside, it is the heated drama of slavery that grounds the movie, giving it substance and historical importance.
The romance, however, is what gives it its wings.
“Belle” tells the mostly true, or at least true-ish, story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a child of mixed race from the liaison of a white officer and black mother. Her father takes her to England to be put in the care of his uncle and aunt, who already are raising another niece, and the two girls grow up as sisters and as equals.
Georgian England was thin on black women in its aristocracy, making Dido Belle a curiosity for some and, for others, far worse than that. The film, which quickly brings Dido from shy child to lovely young woman, centers on her growing awareness of her position, and of how different her prospects are from those of her blond cousin.
Mbatha-Raw plays Dido with suitable restraint, her questions and protests largely in keeping with the time in which she lived. Lovely to look at and clearly keeping much bottled up inside, the performance is authentic but, as with the English women of the time, too tightly corseted.
Tom Wilkinson, one of England’s greatest treasures, is the real heart and soul of the movie as Lord Mansfield, the British judge who was among the first to challenge slavery as a commercial venture. Wilkinson leaves no doubt that this is a man who intends to do right – as much as right is possible within the constraints of the law and society. He dotes on Dido while being somewhat overzealous in protecting her from the rest of his world, and their relationship is the strongest in the film.
But in court, the judge makes it clear his personal life will have no influence on his decision in a case involving a slave ship whose officers throw more than 100 people overboard and then filed an insurance claim for the lost “cargo.”
Acting as angel’s advocate is a young clergyman’s son (earnestly played by Sam Reid) who argues for humanity while falling in love with Dido. Miranda Richardson is a mother who eyes the girls as suitable matches for her sons, one of whom is played by Tom Felton, who seems trapped in his Draco Malfoy persona from the Harry Potter films.
Director Amma Asante does a fine job in re-creating the bustle and pomp of period England at a most important time in its history, on the cusp of the American Revolution, at the height of its power and at a critical time for conscience and commerce.
But the movie’s own good intentions are also its weakness. A little too preachy. A little too pat. And despite its complicated theme, a little too black and white in the lines it draws.
Nevertheless, it is a lovely effort and for those who like history that comes alive in a way that is easy to understand, “Belle” is a window into a time that, for better or worse, helped create the world we live in today.
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson
Director: Amma Asante
Running time: 104 minutes
Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images.
The Lowdown: The daughter of an English admiral and black woman is raised in 18th century England by an uncle who also is the deciding judge in a slave trade case. Based on the lives of Lord Mansfield and his ward.