Belle is a wonderfully moving and impeccably crafted costume drama that lives somewhere in between deep-minded Enlightenment literature and the pleasantest parts of an Afterschool Special.
Amma Assante’s Belle is a classical (read: melodramatic) costume drama that skirts dangerously close to the doldrums of After School Special histrionics, before making a surprising (and rather wonderful) turn for the soulful. It’s the kind of film you may have seen in a high school classroom at some point in your life, intended to teach you all about the terrors of racism, sexism, and classism in 18th century England. But where those classroom films lean heavily on preachy moralizing, Belle manages to tell a touching and believable tale about the strength of character and the power of morals in a time when mere social mores force one to behave against their own hearts.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays the real-life heiress Dido Elizabeth Belle Mansfield, the half-black illegitimate daughter of an English lord in 18th century England. Although her race keeps her out of the public eye, her adopted parents (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) allow her most of – most of – the privileges afforded to their white daughter Bette (Sarah Gadon). She is an equal behind closed doors, but it is not proper for her to eat at the table. When Lord Mansfield, England’s supreme court justice, takes a handsome ward under his wing in the form of the dead sexy, deep-voiced Mr. Divinier (Sam Reid), Dido begins having numerous doubts about her social standing, race, and libido. For one, her father and Mr. Divinier are working on the infamous Zong massacre case (also portrayed, kind of, in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad). For another, she and her sister have reached the age at which they can marry. For yet another thing, Dido inherits a fortune and becomes independently wealthy.
So we’re dealing with a lot of hot-button topics usually seen in costume melodramas: Marrying for love, marrying for status, what role status plays even if you’re wealthy, the power women have in a society structured around their barter, race and racism, and the lingering notion of slavery. Also, no points for guessing that Dido will develop the hots for Divinier. But, thanks to the excellent direction by Assante, and the wonderful acting pretty much all around, none of this ever feels cheap or contrived. There may be a slight whiff of melodrama hanging over the entire affair, and the scenario may be lingeringly familiar to anyone who grew up in the late 1990s and was raised on that era’s spate of Miramax-produced period pieces, but one look at Mbatha-Raw’s pretty, passionate face, or the stern resolve of Tom Wilkinson, and a lot of it melts away. Much of the drama grows very organically from the characters, and we understand who everyone is, what their concerns are, and how they choose to react, almost instantly upon their entrances. I value clarity, especially when it comes to character. Belle is excellent in this regard.
I was fond of scenes wherein the Belle and the Bette conversed. They play and smile and giggle like actual sisters. And when Belle finds herself in between two potential suitors, and her pretty white sister is fighting to find one, you can sense poor Bette’s frustration. Here is a woman whose race and station should dictate that she be a servant, and she is managing to outstrip her sister in the one thing that matters most to her.
The ultimate moral catharsis is a gentle one. It may be a big truthful speech about justice, and it satisfyingly solves much of the drama, but the audience can clearly see that it is something of a foregone conclusion. It doesn’t have the historical heft or tense sense of importance as something like Lincoln. It’s a gentle, sweet film that clearly and directly asks big questions in a calming, conversational way.
The Oscar race may have started early. Belle is exactly the kind of film that would typically sneak onto Oscar ballots, had it been released at the end of the year. If it does win awards, I would not object.
Rating: 4.5 Burritos