Far from a coattails-style brutality drama echoing “12 Years a Slave,” “Belle” tells an upbeat story of a mixed-race heiress who, in late-1700s English society, experiences familial love, social acceptance and exhilarating romance.
A likable heroine and some novelty keep the film engaging. But excessive fluff and falseness frustratingly limit its effect.
Directed by Amma Asante (“A Way of Life”) and written by Misan Sagay, the film centers on real-life Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy admiral and a Caribbean slave.
Set in a Jane Austen-like world of parlors and propriety, the story begins when Dido’s father (Matthew Goode) delivers his young daughter to the English home of an uncle — the high-ranking judge Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). After gasping at the thought of taking a black child into their home, the basically decent Mansfield and his similarly minded wife (Emily Watson) raise Dido as their own, and Dido develops a sisterly bond with another niece, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon).
Race indeed comes into play as when Dido isn’t permitted to dine with the family when guests are present.
But after Dido inherits her father’s fortune, her heiress status grants her opportunities exceeding those of the white but poorer Elizabeth.
In the romantic arena, meanwhile, it allows Dido to reject the interests of greedily bred Oscar Ashford (James Norton) and to follow her heart by choosing a man of conscience in the form of abolitionist lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid). Davinier clashes with the more moderate Lord Mansfield and worries about how he will rule in a high-profile trial involving a ship whose crew threw 142 sick slaves overboard.
Asante has described the film as the rare costume drama that features a nonwhite heroine, and Dido, who is radiantly played by British actress Mbatha-Raw, delivers the Austen essentials. She’s a spirited presence exuding goodness.
Asante also efficiently explores issues of class and gender when addressing how women in Dido’s times were regarded largely as the sum of their dowries.
But ultimately the film suffers from too much Hollywood contrivance and does not shine as the blend of romantic comedy and socially charged history that it should be.
The fact-based slavery-ship case, which could have yielded compelling scenes of political maneuvering (think “Lincoln”) comes across as a device in a melodramatic Dido-Mansfield-Davinier loyalty triangle. Davinier, prone to making preachy speeches, is no Mr. Darcy.
Members of the impressive supporting cast, including Miranda Richardson as a social climber and Penelope Wilton as an aunt who symbolizes spinsterhood, have nothing interesting to do.
A fairy tale ending, like too much of this film, is pat.
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon
Written by Misan Sagay
Directed by Amma Asante
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes