On the one hand a romance, the other a drama about prejudice and to some degrees a conspiracy theory all wrapped up in the guise of a period drama.
Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate, mixed-race child of Captain Robert Lindsay (Matthew Goode – in cameo mode). After finding her in squalor he takes her to stay with her Great Uncle & Aunt, Lord & Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson & Emily Watson). Years go by with Dido being raised in the Mansfield home, never being allowed to eat with the family when guests are visiting but still too noble to sit with the servants Dido finds herself in constant social purgatory due to her illegitimacy and race. An idealistic young lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid) enters her life, at the same time as Lord Mansfield, who serves as the Lord Chief Justice must deliberate a ground breaking insurance case involving the murder of imprisoned slaves or as the defence would have it “lost cargo”. Dido and Davinier join forces to make Lord Mansfield see a case for murder and begin an investigation to prove the facts. All this while Dido is trying to see off the advances of the horrible Ashford family (Tom Felton & Miranda Richardson included). It’s all go really.
With a very lean running time of just over ninety minutes ‘Belle’ manages to fit a great deal of plot and angst in. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that a mini-series could have been made out of the material. It’s to the credit of director/writer Amma Asante then that ‘Belle’ does not feel hurried, characters still have time to develop and put their own stamp on the story despite it being a sizeable cast. It’s a strong cast too Tom Wilkinson playing the role of stoic and stern magistrate that he can do in his sleep, Penelope Wilton has great fun as the governess. Mbata-Raw and Reid though manage to hold their own in the cast of veterans, Mbata-Raw in particular is someone to watch-out for in future. Imbuing Dido with just the right mix of fragility and determination to create an all-round performance. Only Tom Felton as the boo-hissable brother of Dido’s would-be-suitor strikes a bomb note as he seems to struggle with the formalities of the script.
But whilst strong acting and a pleasingly punchy narrative make for an enjoyable watch there does seem to something stopping the film from achieving greatness. Perhaps it’s its brevity that is the issue. Maybe some more emotional connection could be squeezed out if scenes and moments were allowed to linger just a bit longer before moving on to the next scene. That one reservation aside ‘Belle’ is a highly impressive and admirable piece of film-making. Let’s start looking forward to Assante and Mbata-Raw’s next work.