Movie Reviews

‘Belle’: Breakout role for Mbatha-Raw as Dido

Sarah Gadon (Elizabeth) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) star as cousins ( photo: © fox searchlight)

Even if you’re suffering from docudrama fatigue or are skeptical of the assertion (or disclaimer) “inspired by a true story” that precedes so many films these days, Belle is definitely worth your undivided attention.

This issue-oriented biography of Dido Elizabeth Belle — the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of an 18th-century English Royal Navy Admiral — has all the polish, nuance, romance, and period style of a Merchant Ivory adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. And in truth, certain of its familial, social, and romantic elements are evocative of Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, though that book’s narrative account of two proper sisters and their various suitors is certainly a fluffier article than Belle. By comparison, Dido’s tale is one of social turmoil and change that gives it resonance beyond any comedy of manners or examination of antiquated courting rituals.

After her West Indian mother dies, Dido’s noble-born seafaring father leaves the dark-skinned prepubescent girl in the care of her snooty but honorable great-uncle Lord Mansfield and his wife at their elegantly appointed mansion. There, the young Dido forges a sisterly bond with her cousin Elizabeth whose parents abandoned her, thus putting her in the care of the Mansfields, too. The girls’ Aunt Mary serves as their governess, and she dotes on them in equal measure. Though most people in upper-class circles demean Dido as a lesser due to her biracial parentage, the Mansfields care for her, and she lives in great comfort befitting her lineage. Still they keep her under wraps in certain situations due to ostensible community standards.

Complicating matters, it happens that Lord Mansfield is England’s Lord Chief Justice and is expected to rule on cases involving slavery and human trafficking. The love he feels for his niece, and the reservations he might have about her background must invariably have an impact on his judicial decisions.

In short order, the film flashes forward to find Dido and Elizabeth grown into beauties about to enter the marriage market. At this juncture, Gugu Mbatha-Raw — a stunning, classically trained British actress with a tongue-bending name — takes on the role of Dido and imbues her with a depth, warmth and, yes, nobility that inspire empathy and respect for the character. The color of Dido’s skin presumes outcast status in the high society of the day, despite her aristocratic blood. But her intellect, pride, and grace set her apart from the shallow attitudes that were pervasive in those quarters of society.

Any man would be fortunate to wed a woman of Dido’s qualities. Still, her prospects seem to hinge on the cold, hard fact that she inherited a considerable fortune when her father died at sea. Thus, highborn suitors of limited means might overlook Dido’s unconventional ancestry in exchange for financial security. As one might expect, the Mansfields want her to marry “up.” Dido has a mind of her own, and when a smart and attractive vicar’s son displays a passion for human rights and a willingness to lobby Lord Mansfield on behalf of anti-slavery forces, Dido takes notice.

DIRECTOR AND CAST

Directed by British actress-turned-filmmaker Amma Asante, Belle has the right balance of romantic angst, historical insight, and droll hindsight, and its implicit message of racial and gender equality is one that should always be welcome. The art direction is typically spot-on for a U.K. production. Best of all, the movie never degenerates into treacle nor does it succumb to heavy-handed preaching — vicar’s son notwithstanding.

It’s hard to imagine a better cast for a project like this. Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson show the moral spine and essential decency beneath the outward poise, politesse, and conservatism of the Mansfields; Penelope Wilton, best-known in the U.S. as the earnest Mrs. Crawley on TV’s Downton Abbey, is prickly yet supportive as Aunt Mary; Sarah Gadon is a lovely blend of yearning, innocence and mischief (with a touch of competitiveness) as Elizabeth; and Sam Reid is integrity personified as Dido’s ideal match, the vicar’s crusading son John Davinier. In smaller roles, Matthew Goode embodies parental affection and a sense of duty as Dido’s ill-starred father; Miranda Richardson is devilishly good as a shrewish, conniving upper-crust woman trying to marry off her entitled, feckless sons to wealth and status; and Tom Felton — a nasty piece of work as the conniving Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies — is positively hiss-worthy as the most hateful of the sons.

Mbatha-Raw’s elegant, engaging performance as Dido should ensure her status as a lead actress after just a handful of notable roles — including the female lead in Undercovers, a quickly cancelled espionage-themed American TV series. She’s a looker and a talent, but she’s not the only reason to catch Belle, wherein the stakes are significantly higher than who’s marrying above or below his or her station. As much as it’s about a remarkable, barrier-breaking woman finding love and her position in the world, it’s about the centuries-long struggle to ensure human freedom and dignity.

Belle opens May 9 at Landmark Theatres’ Embar-cadero Center Cinema.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture every week on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show, and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at YouTube and Digidev TV. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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