Belle (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | June 10, 2014 | 2 Comments

Belle 4 Stars

Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a mixed-race adopted aristocrat who can't dine with her own family
Early on in Belle, a thoughtful and often engrossing new period drama, the title character asks her aristocrat uncle/caretaker, who happens to be William Murray the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) a question: “Papa, how may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants, but too low to dine with my family?” So lies the central question of the film, which manages to tackle important issues of race and class but also function as a riveting romantic drama.

Belle begins at a bustling seaside port where a Royal Navy widower (Mathew Goode) reunites with his illegitimate mixed-race daughter, Elizabeth Dido Belle. Belle is then taken to England, where she will be raised by her father’s aristocrat family. After a tense argument between her father and his, she begins living a privileged life with her uncle, two aunts (played by Emily Watson and Downton Abbey‘s Penelope Wilton), and blond cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gordon). For a while, the family lives together peacefully and pleasantly.

Once Belle and Elizabeth are put on the marriage market, however, everything changes. Belle’s suitors wouldn’t dare marry someone of color, but if she doesn’t find a suitor she’ll live a life of shame. In a clever yet confusing twist, Belle has the benefit of a guaranteed inheritance, while her white cousin does not. Still, marriage problems seem trivial when Belle discovers her uncle is the judge of the Zong massacre court case, which focuses on the Zong slave ship crew that, when in low supply of water, threw some of 142 African slaves into the water. The polite and business-like Mansfield doesn’t want to go against the Zong’s insurers, who are central to British trade, despite a young British lawyer (Sam Reid) who tries to convince him otherwise. Oh, and the young lawyer is love with Belle.

The film, from Misan Sagay’s script, is part soapy love story, part tense legal drama. To great effect, director Amma Assante combines the historical elements of both genres to create an engaging and surprisingly fresh period piece.

It can’t hurt that Assante has such a talented cast to work with. As Belle, newcomer Gugu Mbath Raw is powerful and moving, while Sam Reid brings political vigour to the role of love interest. In the supporting cast, Tom Wilkinson is suitably stiff yet tender at heart and Emily Gordon, Penelope Wilton, and Sarah Gordon make layered and flawed female relatives for Belle.

Story-wise, there’s plenty of historical significance and relevant themes on display. Though the Zong massacre trial is filled with enough thought-provoking ideas for an entire movie, the film questions Belle’s suspended cultural status, portrays Mansfield as a conflicted and layered character, and pits the two cousins against a pair of nasty suitors without resorting to laughable stereotypes. One particularly saddening moment comes when the aforementioned suitors’ mother meets Belle and remarks “I had no idea she’d be so…black.” It’s Assante’s unflinching willingness to wrestle with big ideas about slavery and marriage that truly sets Belle apart.


2 Responses to “Belle (Flack’s Review)”

  1. Papa
    June 26th, 2014 @ 9:36 am

    We saw Belle this week and having reread your review I agree and found your comments to be very incisive – good job!

  2. Steve Itkin
    July 2nd, 2014 @ 6:28 am

    I haven’t seen Belle yet, however your review puts it at the top my list! Looking forward to it!

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