Before the Trailer, We Thought: Premiering in Toronto to warm but not ecstatic acclaim, Amma Asante’s “Belle” appeared to be fresh off the endless conveyor belt of cookie-cutter costume dramas, rife with the sort of Jane Austen-era period trappings and muted romantic intrigue that has made many of the recent genre entries almost interchangeable, although the sumptuousness and the pedigree of them still manage to draw in viewers.
And Now: “Belle” features many of the hallmarks of the standard period piece, with its corsets and distinguished English cast, but it offers something of a departure in the fact that this time and place of privileged high-society is told from the point-of-view of a mixed-race protagonist, Dido. Fathered by a Royal Navy admiral, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is left to live with her father’s great-uncle (Tom Wilkinson), the Earl of Mansfield, and his wife (Emily Watson). Despite growing up in opulence, she is never fully accepted into their world, not even allowed to be present at dinner when they are entertaining company. When her father dies and the inheritance he leaves her presents itself as a eventual dowry to a husband, Dido is met with rejection and racism by most potential suitors. Politically-minded idealist John Davinier (Sam Reid) comes along and takes interest in her, but her mixed race and his lower social standing could end up breaking social conventions. While not as unflinching in its portrayal of historical racism as say, “12 Years A Slave,” this variation on a well-worn cinematic style should nevertheless hopefully inspire interest and discussion when it arrives next year.
“Belle” hits theaters on May 2, 2014.