"Belle" has a great, relatively unsung historical truth to tell. Its makers have chosen to illustrate that story prettily, rather than dramatize it three-dimensionally. But the cast brings the illustrations to life whenever and however they can.
As Dido Elizabeth Belle, the biracial daughter of an 18th century British Royal Navy admiral, Gugu Mbatha-Raw holds each and every loving close-up like a genuine star. Just as crucially Tom Wilkinson lends a quiet, easy authority to the role of Lord Mansfield, Belle's great-uncle, the Lord Chief Justice whose ruling on a landmark slave-trade court case was deeply influenced, the film argues, by Mansfield's familial relationship with Belle.
The film sprang from a portrait spied by screenwriter Misan Sagay. It hangs in Scone Palace at Scotland's University of St. Andrews. In it, two young women smile at the viewer. They are apparent friends and equals: Belle, daughter of a former slave, and Lady Elizabeth Murray, Belle's half-cousin. Both women were raised at Kenwood House, the country estate of Lord and Lady Mansfield.
Belle's story is laid out with the clean, neat lines and uncomplicated psychology of middle-grade Young Adult fiction. An heiress, Belle is swathed in a comfortable, even lavish upbringing while mired in societal prejudice. She finds herself "too high in rank to dine with my servants," as she says at one point, "but too low to dine with my own family."
The more factual aspects of "Belle," directed by Amma Asante and photographed in beautiful, portrait-worthy light by Ben Smithard, focus on Lord Mansfield's consideration of the Zong massacre case, in which 142 African slaves were drowned — murdered — by the British slave ship Zong. The insurers refused to settle up (30 pounds per dead body); the owners sued; "Belle" culminates in a courtroom sequence in which Lord Mansfield determines the future of the British slave trade.
Meantime, the fictions in "Belle" really do feel like fictions. The way the love story between Belle and her idealistic, hunky heart's desire (Sam Reid) plays out, it smacks of dubious anachronism and pleasant contrivance. We never really dig beneath the polished surfaces of Belle's life in this film. The film feels checklist-y and rather rushed, edited ruthlessly for pace and momentum over nuance. The film got lost in last year's Toronto film festival shuffle, thanks to a little picture called "12 Years a Slave." It's nowhere near as distinctive or arresting as that movie.
Yet its best performers find their truths and telling details in between the straightforward expository lines. Mbatha-Raw suggests an intriguing and supple contradiction, that of a woman who has landed in poisonous clover and refuses to settle for less than a full life. And in a role that could've been insufferably saintly, Wilkinson brings a blessedly light hand to a man manipulating the gears of history.
"Belle" - 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images)
Running time: 1:45
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2015, RedEye