“How can we expect to be civilized when we live in such a barbaric world?”
Period pieces have never been my cup of tea. Whether it’s the dated dialect or the or heavy-handed focus on production value over story quality, they just don’t seem to peak my interest. I didn’t expect much from Belle, probably because I didn’t really know what it was about before seeing it. This is a very good movie that rightfully critiques a period of time when injustice and inequality were of the norm. It might fall into the same traps as most films like this so often do, but it’s still an enjoyable tale of a strong-willed young woman determined to fight for what is just.
Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a Royal Navy officer, arrives in the West Indies to take custody of his daughter. She’s a “mulatto” and her mother was a passenger on a slave ship. The father goes to his Uncle’s sprawling estate and pleads with him and his wife to raise her as their own. After all, the family’s distinguished bloodline runs through the mixed child’s veins. Aristocracy replaces poverty as her destiny.
Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a beautiful, exotic young woman raised in the Mansfield house. Her Uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), is Lord Chief Justice of England. Dido and her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) are both raised by their Great-Uncle and his wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson). The flowering young women have the same priorities, primarily focused on finding a suitable husband, but Dido isn’t allowed to go about it in the same way. Customs of the time prevent her from habituating with the rest of the family and their guests solely because of her color. That storyline fuels the necessary romantic angle while a discriminating court case brought to Lord Mansfield gives the film an opportunity to be critical of the ethics of 18th century England.
Belle, directed by Amma Asante, is a well made movie. The set designs are breathtaking, the story is brisk, and you never feel bogged down while watching it. Many period pieces feel just as ostentatious as so many people of the respective time periods presumably were, but this manages to be enjoyable. Still, there was plenty of room for improvement to be had all around. The storyline is completely jumbled and at times switches from romance to intense drama with no clear reason. I don’t really know how else to explain it. What Belle sorely lacks is focus. Had everyone involved known what was most important to them from the onset, that problem would’ve never surfaced.
In all honesty, Belle is as confused as its protagonist about what it wants to be. Some parts with John Davinier (Sam Reid), the man leading the cause against Lord Mansfield wrongfully defending the murder of countless slaves, are so utterly contrived. Maybe it’s accurate of the time period, but how can Dido fall in love with Davinier when she has seen him in person only a handful of times? The acting is great all around, especially from Reid, Wilkinson, and most of all the graceful Mbathat-Raw, but why do all of these characters so easily sway in their convictions with little to no reason? They have wavering beliefs. Belle is far better than films similar to it and is really able to justify the harsh portrait it paints of England’s past. However, it’s lacking key dramatic beats to be entirely effective, and the romance feels like a knock-knock joke. Dido so desperately wants to be socially accepted and come out as her own woman, and I only wish Belle had made the same conscious effort to cohesively tell such a deserving story.
“Society has a habit of disregarding one of its own even when opportunity provides. “
Rating: 3 out of 5