by George Wolf
A scandalous affair. An innocent child. A society obsessed with money, power, and its own prejudices.
Belle is the latest historical drama to remind us that sometimes, the past looks pretty familiar.
It’s based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, born in the 1700s as the bi-racial daughter of a slave and an Admiral in the British Navy. She was raised by members of her father’s aristocratic family, standing alone as an anachronistic mix of wealth, prestige, and brown skin.
Actually, the story of how writer Misan Sagay came to find Belle could be a movie in itself.
Inspiration leapt from a painting of Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, that Sagay (who adapted Their Eyes Were Watching God for TV) encountered while in Scotland as a college student. After years of research, Sagay’s screenplay mixes fact with poetic liberties to make Belle’s story truly compelling.
The cast is letter-perfect. In the lead, Gugu Mbatha-Raw delivers a breakout performance, infusing Belle with an effective mix of intellect, wonder, spirit and hurt. As family patriarch Lord Mansfield, Tom Wilkinson is…well, Tom Wilkinson, an actor who’s seemingly impervious to missteps.
Director Amma Asante not only gives the film a fitting majestic sheen, but delicately balances Jane Austen-style period romance with serious social commentary and historical heft. At times, Belle flirts with overplaying its hand on both fronts, but Asante displays fine instincts for restraint before the storytelling takes too obvious a turn.
It is a fascinating story and a completely satisfying film. When Asante finally throws her trump card and you glimpse the inspirational portrait, it’s clear that, whatever barbs historians may throw, they can’t keep Belle from hitting a bullseye.