Amma Asante’s second film as director, and like A United Kingdom based on real events, Belle is about Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young woman of mixed race who is brought up by her aristocratic uncle, despite being given the cold shoulder due to her heritage and being made to feel subservient to her cousin/sister. Elsewhere, a controversial court case takes place regarding the apparent murder of a large group of transported slaves for insurance purposes and Dido/Belle soon takes an interest, developing a relationship with the young, principled, aspiring lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid)
At the centre of the film is Gugu Mbatha-Raw and she is wonderful here in her breakthrough role (though I still remember when she broke onto screens as Tish Jones in Doctor Who). Dido/Belle is such a wonderful character; she is noticeably intelligent, brave, compassionate and strong willed despite being made to feel second class due to her mixed race and Mbatha-Raw is perfect in the role, conveying so much emotion with her expressive eyes and generally being pitch perfect in all regards.
The film also boasts a very strong supporting cast that includes Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, James Norton and Tom Felton (apparently an Asante favourite, appearing in both this and A United Kingdom!) and ultimately, there isn’t a single weak performance to be found in Belle; the strong ensemble cast gives the film a particularly strong foundation. Belle is also directed very well, it is lavishly designed and Rachel Portman’s score is majestic and affecting.
Even though the film is based on a true story and was intended to be something of a historical account of Britain’s first mixed race aristocrat, exploring important themes of racial inequality, Belle actuallly seems like more of a Jane Austen adaptation and throughout the film, I could not get over how Austen-esque it all was (with a bit of Dickens thrown in at the end for the court scene). For the majority, Belle seemed like more of a literary adaptation than as an historical piece, due to its central romance (Mr. Davinier reminding me so much of Emma‘s Mr. Knightley), general atmosphere and its brutish, snarling antagonists. While this is in no way a criticism, as the film was still very enjoyable and with an engaging story, I don’t think that Belle can really be taken seriously as an historical account, due to its overwhelming melodrama and theatricality.
It’s actually interesting that I called out A United Kingdom for being hammy and melodramatic in places whereas in this film, it all seems appropriately placed.