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Belle - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B
Score: C+

The presentation of Belle is about as conventional as it gets -- average, really. The editing narrows it to a competently compelling story that is also mired slightly by overtly formulaic tracking close-ups and orchestral crescendos transparently designed to manipulate our emotions. It looks and feels like a hundred other period films presenting an England of a few hundred years ago.

Except for one salient detail: the protagonist is of mixed race. This is not something you see in other movies set in English high society of centuries past. Indeed, Dido (a lovely Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised as one of their own when her father is forced to drop her off with her uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson); his wife, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson); and Lady Mansfield's spinster sister, Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton).

That is, they raise her as their own -- sort of. Many people of mixed race even today report feeling like they don't fit anywhere, and Dido's circumstances take this sentiment to a bit of an extreme. Dido's loving but unavoidably absent father (who gives her the family name Belle, hence the title), was born of noble blood and thus so was she; her mother, however, was an African slave. Director Amma Asante strangely provides no other detail about Dido's mother, although that informs Dido's difficulties of identity. Still, it would be fascinating to find out how Dido's father and mother came together. That, however, is a different story.

This is Dido's story, and a unique one it is indeed. This is late-eighteenth-century England; imagine such a young woman being brought up in "high society" in the United States at the time. All historical evidence suggests such a thing would be impossible, and in spite of a history of bad blood between the U.S. and England, England clearly led the way when it came to abolishing slavery, far earlier than the U.S. did. As it happens, Dido's uncle, for all intents and purposes adoptive father, was a high ranking judge, who made a ruling on which much of the plot here hinges -- and led the way for abolitionism there.

This story is undeniably fascinating in its own right. The actors offer us compelling characters to surround Dido in such flagrantly unconventional circumstances. Dido is not raised as a slave -- far from it -- but neither is she fully included in the "formal" society in which her family exists. Instead, she lives in this hitherto uncharted social nether region, where she is above dining with the servants but her family is above having her dine with them in formal settings. Eventually, at least, we see Dido sitting together with her family for breakfast.

In some ways, Belle is like a kindler, gentler 12 Years a Slave. Both the gender and the situation of the main character is inverted: instead of a free black man sold into slavery, here we find a woman who might otherwise have been a slave finding herself living among the higher classes. In both cases, the unsustainable nature of slave economy is underscored by characters who defy easy categorization and betray cultural contradictions. Although 12 Years a Slave is easily a better film, Belle is definitely easier to swallow.

This is also based on a true story, which helps keep the narrative fairly unpredictable -- as Dido, presumed impossible to marry off, finds herself with two different male suitors. Her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), actually finds it more difficult to land a man. Both make some fairly obvious observations of the plight of women in their society. Dido, as it happens, has both her mixed race and her gender to contend with. When Lord Mansfield asks her if she finds herself in a book she's reading about an African slave who married a white man, she replies, "I don't know that I find myself in anything."

This story and the characters are reason enough to see Belle. You'll just have to look past the paint-by-numbers plot trajectory as things fall into place on the way to the resolution, particularly of Dido's relationship with Lord Mansfield. The courtroom scenes are contrived enough that they might as well have featured a crowd that cheers at the end of a rousing speech -- which, thankfully, although we get close, we are spared. The rest of this truly fascinating story more than makes up for such minor shortfalls.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (R) and Sarah Gadon demonstrate in 18th century England that love makes a family in BELLE.

Overall: B+
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