By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — She was young, wealthy, and black. Her name was Belle. And British high society didn’t quite know what to do with her.
In the wake of 12 Years a Slave, but with no graphic content and much softer corners, comes this fictionalized biographical drama about a noblewoman in late-18th-century England of mixed English and African ancestry, the first mixed-race woman to be raised as an aristocrat, who helped bring England ever closer to eventual abolition.
Belle is a handsome British period piece, a romantic drama about Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of Royal Navy officer Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and an African slave, who was brought to England by her father and left in the care and at the estate of her great-uncle, William Murray, otherwise known as Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice (the highest chief justice in the land) while Lindsay returned to his Royal Navy service.
Dido, played by British/South African actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is raised by Lord Mansfield, played by Tom Wilkinson, as an aristocrat along with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon).
As for Lady Mansfield, played by Emily Watson, mild shock might accurately describe her reaction when she learns that Dido is black.
But it is Dido’s birthright to live with the Mansfields and, although she is begrudgingly accepted as part of the family, she is not allowed to dine with them, especially when they entertain others.
And while Elizabeth is being groomed for her entry to society, Dido is pretty much kept out of sight.
But a romantic relationship develops between her and an outspoken young lawyer, John Davinier (Sam Reid), a union that meets with the strong disapproval of Lord Mansfield, who considers the match beneath Dido, even though Davinier becomes his legal apprentice.
Mansfield is also about to rule on an infamous slave-trade case in the Court of King’s Bench that has come to be known as the Zong massacre of 1781 -– when the crew of a slave ship purposely drowned its sick slaves in order to collect on their insurance — and this thrust, which brings to mind Steven Spielberg’s underappreciated Amistad, represents an important step in the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom, where the slave-centered economy was on its last legs.
Because of large gaps in factual knowledge, director Amma Assante (A Way of Life) has the leeway to fill in as she pleases. And she chooses to stay away from the shocking and visceral.
Instead, she treats portions of the film as if it were a comedy of manners in the Jane Austen tradition, examining class and gender and race, and leaves the plantations and slave ships in the background while addressing the horrors of slavery on a mostly intellectual plane.
The eloquent screenplay by Misan Sagay (Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Secret Laughter of Women), which was inspired by a painting of Dido Belle commissioned by Lord Mansfield that has her standing beside Lady Elizabeth, makes the most of the filmmakers’ artistic-license freedom.
Ironies abound, not the least of which is that it is Dido who turns out to be the heiress to her father’s fortune, which means she will have lifelong financial stability and will not have to depend on a man to provide it for her — as opposed to her “sister,” Elizabeth.
For Mbatha-Raw, who has worked mostly in British television, stardom seems assured. Her coming-of-age title character is assertive and defiant, but restrained and eloquent as well.
And the camera loves her, lingering on her expressive face as the first among equals in an excellent ensemble cast, none more so than Wilkinson, who is characteristically superb in support.
Belle is not ferocious a la 12 Years a Slave, and is intense only in spots. But those spots are spot-on.
So we’ll abolish 3½ stars out of 4 for Belle, an admirable work of historical fiction that might be a bit more passionate, a tad more urgent, but couldn’t be much more tasteful or thoughtfully watchable or quietly powerful.