Dan Lybarger reviews Belle

May 23, 2014

Monkey note: As I said, we’re working to get several review up. This is the first one.

Grade: 86
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Matthew Goode, Sarah Gadon, Sam Reid, Miranda Richardson, Tom Felton, Sam Reid
Director: Amma Asante
Rating: PG, for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images
Running time: 104 minutes

By Dan Lybarger
for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood, dirt & angels

You might have heard of Dido Elizabeth Belle during a casual digression during history class. That’s a shame because her tale is fascinating on its own. It’s as seemingly unlikely as it is genuine.

Belle_posterBelle recounts how she was born to a slave and the British Adm. John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). Her father saw little of her but insisted she be raised with his full birthright by his uncle, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). She even played and became close friends with her white cousin, Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon).

When her father died unexpectedly, Dido (played as an adult by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) inherited a tidy sum, which freed her from having to do what most women in her era (the late 18th century) were obligated to do, get married.

She might not have to marry, but she’d rather not be lonely, either. Because of her mixed heritage, suitors — even ones eager for her sizable dowry — are scarce.

Furthermore, the house is overcome with the troubling legal case that the Earl is set to rule on. It’s called the Somersett’s Case, and it could decide if slavery is allowed to remain in Great Britain. Regardless of his affection toward Dido and his murky opinions of the slave trade, the Earl keeps his ruling to himself despite the heavy machinations going on in his brain.

Essentially, Belle is two films: Dido’s search for love and acceptance and the Earl wrestling with his weighty ruling. Both work because director Amma Asante effectively removes the sense of inevitability. Decisions that seem obviously right in 21st-century eyes seem more nuanced and ambivalent in the film. As a result, there’s a remarkable amount of tension for a story that’s already spelled out on Wikipedia.

Mbatha-Raw is suitably strong and dignified in the title role, but she projects a convincing longing that makes her search for a worthy suitor engaging. At times, Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay try to stack the deck by making a family of gold diggers trying to suck up to Mansfields seem far too obvious. Casting Tom Felton (Malfoy from the Harry Potter films) as one of them doesn’t help.

Thankfully this lapse is forgivable because Wilkinson is so wonderfully assured as the Earl. He looks so worn by the case that he’s unable to tell his closest relatives what he really thinks about the matter. He’s certainly not going to share his thoughts with a passionate abolitionist (Sam Reid) who’s smitten with Dido.

Belle does wrestle with a corner of history that most books have avoided. Nonetheless, those are the corners that most worth exploring.

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