Dido Elizabeth Belle is a little-known historical figure from
18th century England: an illegitimate mixed-race girl whose widowed
father was an Admiral in the Royal Navy. As recounted in Belle, when he goes off to sea he leaves her in the care of her
great-aunt and uncle, who raise her as their own, alongside a cousin who
becomes a sister to her. She grows up to be an intelligent, self-assured young
woman, unaware that her color bars her from living a “normal” existence, despite
the promise of a yearly income. The film chronicles her gradual awakening to
the world around her—and a brewing court case (to be judged by her surrogate
father) that will determine the fate of the slave trade in England.
So far, so good; this is rich material. The film is handsome
and well-cast. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who made an impression on me in Tom Hanks’ Larry Crowne, is ideal in the title role
and is supported by an top-drawer ensemble led by Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson,
Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Penelope Wilton, Miranda Richardson, and Tom Felton.
It all sounds sure-fire, but as the film progresses its
storytelling becomes increasingly schematic and pat, denying us the true
satisfaction of watching a slice of history reenacted with modern flair. A love
story involving an earnest young lawyer and Belle is contrived and
Undemanding fans of British costume drama may be
entertained, as I was at first, but Belle
is teeming with good intentions that don’t quite pay off.