Belle is the story of a bi-racial woman who was the illegitimate daughter of a British Royal Navy officer. Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) is a well meaning man, who wants to do the right thing after the death of Belle’s mother, a slave of African ancestry. Apparently people were aware that this sort of thing happened, they just didn’t talk about it. While off to fight, he leaves his daughter in the care of his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the Chief Justice, at his estate of Kenwood House. He and his wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) are also raising another niece, Elizabeth Murray, and so the two will be raised as sisters of sorts. Surrounded by wealth and privilege, her upbringing is going to test the social mores of the day. On the surface, Belle is one of those well meaning period dramas that seeks to educate while it entertains.
I must admit, I am a sucker for a good costume drama. A British screenwriter of Nigerian ancestry, Misan Sagay was inspired by a real 18th century painting that currently hangs at Scotland’s Scone Palace. It presents the racially mixed Dido Elizabeth Belle as an equal with her white sister/cousin, Elizabeth Murray. At first, the drama concerns Belle’s place in society. Her race and class have different dictates than that of her sister, In theory, these period pieces often become victims to anachronistic sensibilities as colored through the historical revisionism of modern views. We can watch from a enlightened distance with 300 years of history on our side. Belle is good enough to fit comfortably with the works of Jane Austen. If the social consciousness seems a bit 2014, rest assured the melodrama has a genuine feel for time and place. That these qualms never really become an issue while watching Belle is testament to the stirring performances of the main cast.
Where Belle really gets interesting is when it delves into the history of the era. The details of the Zong slave-ship massacre becomes a landmark case in the courts. Lord Mansfield is the Chief Justice presiding over the case when the insurance company refuses to pay for the loss of the human cargo. He must determine whether the slave trading company can collect on the slaves that were deliberately thrown overboard when the ship ran out of drinking water. Will Belle’s influence have an effect on him? Woven into this account is a would-be suitor (James Norton) whose mother is tempted by Belle’s sizeable dowry. After all she is still heir to her father‘s fortune. His brother is a hissable villain played by Malfoy, er uh pardon me, Tom Felton. There’s also an idealistic abolitionist (Sam Reid) of a lower class who provides some romantic spark. The cast is uniformly great, but none better than Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a British woman of South African descent. She embodies the title role with dignity and grace. Her personality is restrained, yet resolved. A gorgeous countenance highlighted by her remarkably expressive eyes which convey all manner of emotion without words. Belle is captivating and presages the arrival of an exciting new talent.