Amma Asante’s Belle is a sumptuous costume drama that rides on a wave of sentimentality, earning every touching moment that could seem corny in less capable hands. Belle also proudly presents two new stars for the price of one film: the supremely talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw and the unknown yet soon-to-be-everywhere Sam Reid. Set in pro-slavery 18th century England, this retelling of a true story details the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Mbatha-Raw), a girl born out of passion between a Royal Navy Admiral (Matthew Goode) and an African slave. Wanting to shield his daughter from the barbarity of slavery yet also protect her from the bigoted aristocratic circle his family is forced to play nice with, Admiral Sir John Lindsay leaves Dido in the care of his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), and Mansfield’s sister/governess, Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton). The Mansfields at first begrudgingly accept their illegitimate mixed-race niece as one of their own — more out of fear than an inner wickedness — but then come to genuinely love Dido once they see that race has no bearing on the true value of a kind, strong-willed, rightfully opinionated young woman. Unfortunately for Dido and The Mansfields, the Downton Abbey-esque social politics and British parliamentary burdens send their lives into a tailspin, threatening to stall a historic shift for the betterment of humanity.
Entering adulthood with the prospect of marriage always in her ear, Dido begins to question her role as inheritor of her father’s vast riches. Dido has the means to live the rest of her days alone, or in shame if she chooses to marry a man of equal upper-class stature. However, the more the hypocrisies of her lifestyle are revealed to her, the less she desires any of it, and in fact knows she cannot squander the rare position of power she’s found herself in (a woman of color with actual influence). Dido’s true calling finally grabs hold of her upon learning of her uncle’s latest court case that must be put to rest.
When a ship’s insurers accuse the captain and crew of murdering their slaves (known from history texts as the “Zong massacre”) so they can collect a hefty insurance claim, Lord Mansfield as Lord Chief Justice is asked to step in, review the case and make a ruling based on the evidence presented. Such a ruling may reverse the legality of slavery all throughout England. Much like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Amma Asante makes audiences sweat through the entirety of the court proceedings in spite of its predictable outcome. Asante allows us to experience the same sense of dread, hope, and relief that each of its characters feel, making the entire emotional journey of Belle seem far more significant than a coming-of-age tale of similar ilk. Belle could have easily been a paint-by-numbers history lesson, but Asante refreshingly refuses to go through the motions just to arrive at a triumphant finale. One of the greater joys to be found in Belle is the complex relationship Dido forms with Lord Mansfield’s understudy, John Davinier (Reid). Truth be told, I can’t even remember the last time I’ve witnessed a movie romance this perfect.
As Dido and Davinier, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid share a one-of-a-kind chemistry, one that burns brightly as a symbolic torch for human progress and interracial validation. This isn’t a steamy, “rip-each-other’s-clothes-off” kind of interracial love like you’d see between, say, Olivia and Fitz on ABC’s Scandal (though don’t get me wrong — that coupling is a powerful statement in its own right). Their love goes much deeper; it’s based on a profound respect for one another as socially conscious individuals, a shared value system, and the wind of change their taboo union represents for all those too afraid to follow their hearts. While likely just a coincidence, Dido and Davinier’s relationship begins like Belle and Beast’s in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The two are wary of one another, butting heads because both have no filter and speak their minds like there’s not an entire country waiting to hang them for such blasphemous talk. However, once their goals begin to align and they realize that what was most irritating is suddenly the one thing they’d never change about the other, Dido and Davinier instantly become one of cinema’s most memorable movie couples. Whatever skepticism you might have concerning two unknowns front-lining a film while surrounded by the best acting talent Britain has to offer, think again — both newcomers more than hold their own against heavyweights Wilkinson and Watson (who, per usual, are nothing short of brilliant). Mbatha-Raw and Reid immediately shirk off any inexperience fears and plunge deep into their characters, primarily relying on instinct versus technique, which in turn makes their interactions feel more organic and easier to settle into. Hopefully Belle is just the first of many great roles to come for the pair of breakthrough performers (hint: be on the look-out for 2014’s Blackbird and Serena).
Belle also features excellent supporting turns from Sarah Gadon (coming off her brilliant work in Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy), Tom Felton and Miranda Richardson. As Dido’s cousin Elizabeth Murray, Gadon once again shows us she can play any part with exquisite detail, this time subverting the “spoiled rich girl” archetype by demonstrating how such awful character traits are ingrained, not innate. By the end of Belle, you can’t help but sympathize with Gadon’s Elizabeth, even when her arc goes in a direction you wish could have been avoided due to its morally ambiguous implications of said character. Then there is Tom Felton and Miranda Richardson as The Crawfords, an opportunistic mother and son who, along with eldest son Oliver (James Norton), plan to steal The Mansfield’s fortune by marring off Oliver. Felton’s James Ashford is a particularly nasty specimen of snobbish aristocracy, one who takes pleasure in the pain of others, surface and otherwise.
If there’s one flaw that holds Belle back from rising to the upper echelons of the current 2014 film slate, it’s the backpedaling done to Dido’s character on several occasions. Whenever Dido comes to a grand realization for the better, she takes a few steps forward…only to circle back around into a demure, tractable state of being several scenes later. I would have preferred for Dido’s resolve to be unwavering, especially when she has major breakthroughs that, logically-speaking, shouldn’t be retracted on a dime’s notice. Other than that faulty aspect of the script, Belle is indie royalty at its finest. Amma Asante flexes her directorial muscles and churns out a film that manages to juggle narrative, characterization and history quite deftly. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid are the great finds of 2014, as is Amma Asante, whose talent we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of.
Fox Searchlight Picture’s Belle releases this Friday, May 2nd, in select theaters. The film will be expanding throughout the month, so please be sure to check it out whenever it hits a theater near you. Here’s the trailer for your viewing pleasure: