Movie Review - Belle

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (left)
and Sarah Gadon in "Belle"
This is Britain's response to Lincoln. Amma Asante does one better than Steven Spielberg by not just limiting the drama to the process and politics, but by personalizing the struggle that came between class and racism in late 18th century England.

Whereas Spielberg dealt with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, Asante has the ruling on the case of the Zong ship and its insurance claim. Like the Thirteenth Amendment, the case of the Zong ship led to the abolition of slavery in England. Yet, Asante doesn't bog the movie down in the mechanics. It's more about the interpersonal relationships that were affected and observed during this situation.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Touch and Undercovers) stars as Dido Lindsay Belle, a girl of biracial descent. Her mother is black, possibly a slave. Her father is white. His name is Captain John Lindsay, played by Matthew Goode (Match Point and A Single Man). When her mother dies, Lindsay retrieves and delivers her into high society because of his wealth and influence. He dies while serving in the military but leaves her to be raised by her aunt and uncle, along with a very sizable dowry.

Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom and Michael Clayton) co-stars as Belle's uncle, Lord Mansfield. He's the judge overseeing the case of the Zong ship. The case is about this slave vessel that dumped its African slaves overboard into the ocean because of fears of not having enough potable water. Over 140 slaves were killed. Yet, the Zong wants to claim the slaves as lost cargo or lost property and get the insurance money for them.

While this case is adjudicated, Belle starts to develop a romance with an up-and-coming lawyer and politician named John Davinier, played by Sam Reid (Anonymous and Hatfields & McCoys). Unlike everyone else, Davinier has not a racist bone in his body and doesn't think twice about accepting Belle and even falling in love with her. He's a true abolitionist and he's not concerned with all of the social politics like status and reputation.

The romance can be at times overblown. The music in particular swells at all the obvious moments. Reid is a good actor. He's very strong, perhaps too strong in almost all his moments. One always knows, however, where he stands.

Putting aside the political stuff, this movie plays like a lot of these British period pieces like Pride & Prejudice (2005), The Duchess (2008) or Anna Karenina (2012). Mbatha-Raw is very much Keira Knightley for black or biracial women.

The production design, costumes, hairstyling and makeup are on par with all those Knightley films. I would say the cinematography is not as bold or as creative.

Yet, the film is saved with its writing. Next to moral speeches, there are great questions and funny dialogue that keep the movie afloat. The performances from Emily Watson (Punch-Drunk Love and The Proposition) as Lady Mansfield and Sarah Gadon (Cosmopolis and Enemy) as Belle's cousin and childhood friend Elizabeth are bittersweet as it becomes clear that both women are products of their environment. It's often the interactions of these characters with Belle that sell the film.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.


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