MRR Review: "Belle"

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Rating: PG
Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: May 02, 2013
Directed by: Amma Asante
Genre: Drama

Combining an intriguing true story with elements of Jane Austen storytelling, "Belle" is a beautiful film that details the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a biracial young woman who was born to a navy admiral and raised as an aristocrat. Belle is sent to live with her great uncle, but the color of her skin makes it difficult for her to fully enjoy her privileged life. The plot elements of "Belle" may be somewhat formulaic, but the story itself is both engaging and relevant for modern society.

In 18th century England, a navy admiral named Sir John Lindsay has a daughter with a black slave, and she is named Dido Elizabeth Belle. Lindsay accepts Dido as his own, and he sends her to live with her great uncle Lord Mansfield, who is a chief of justice in England, and his wife Lady Mansfield. Lindsay returns to service in the Navy, and the Mansfields bring the girl into their home, shocked that she has dark skin. Although they take care of her begrudgingly at first, they soon come to love her in their own stiff, formal way. The girl, who comes to be known as Belle, follows the Mansfield's strict rules and is seen as a beloved member of the household.

As Belle grows older, she becomes good friends with Elizabeth, another of the Mansfields' nieces. Although she is given a fairly large allowance and lives in a privileged home, the color of her skin affects the way she is seen by outsiders. She is not allowed to sit at the table when her uncle and aunt have guests for dinner, although she may greet the guests after they are finished eating. When Elizabeth and Belle reach the age at which they may be courted, Lady Manfield originally shelters Belle from the process in order to protect the young woman from gossip. However, Belle soon becomes popular among the young suitors.

Before she knows it, the beautiful Belle becomes strangely drawn to John Davinier, Lord Manfield's charming and revolutionary legal apprentice. When the Zong massacre of 1781 is brought up in court, Lord Mansfield is indignant, his convictions strongly affected by his affections for Belle. The massacre involved the alleged drowning of more than 100 sick Africans on a slave ship by slave traders in order to collect the insurance. Belle is particularly affected by the case, and together, she and Mr. Davinier help her uncle bring justice to those involved.

The real-life Dido Elizabeth Belle was born to John Lindsay and a slave named Maria Bell of whom little is known. Very few historical descriptions of Belle are available, so screenwriter Misan Sagay was given a large amount of creative license when telling her story. The film itself is largely inspired by a famous painting that depicts Belle and her cousin Elizabeth while they were living at Scone Palace. In the painting, the fair-skinned Elizabeth is holding a book and touching the arm of a moving Belle, who is wearing a turban and placing a finger up to her mouth as she smiles slightly. Although the movie does not always capture the wild, spirited Belle that is seen in the painting, it certainly paints an intriguing picture of the young woman's life.

Although the source material is strong and the film is visually appealing, the film could have been made stronger with less emphasis on the minuscule problems of the higher class and more emphasis on the problems faced by Belle and other mixed-race individuals during the time period. Additionally, the direct involvement of Belle in the court case is historically unlikely, and such instances in the film often feel like modern values being placed into a period piece. The relationship between Belle and Davinier and other plot points are handsome pieces of the film, but they often feel too romanticized to give the true story justice.

Despite its flaws, "Belle" is a thoroughly entertaining and important movie that tells an important part of the story of slavery. A cast of great actors add a touch of genuine style and humanity to the colorful film, portraying their characters with passion. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is flawless as the beautiful and spirited Belle, and Tom Wilkinson is lovable as Lord Mansfield. Emily Watson and Sarah Gadon are also excellent in their roles as Lady Mansfield and Elizabeth.

"Belle" may not be the historical drama of the year, but it is an inspiring and enjoyable film that moviegoers should not pass up. The costumes and setting transport viewers into another time, and the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle is completely enthralling from beginning to end.