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Belle review – a ripe costume drama with teeth
A mma Asante's powerful, moving and gently subversive romantic melodrama is a finely wrought tale of a woman out of time, a film that plays eloquently upon the heartstrings as it interweaves familiar personal intrigue with stirring social history. Intelligently combining the enticing pleasures of a ripe costume drama with the still shameful legacy and lessons of the slave trade, Belle dresses its entryist agendas in the fashionable finery of a multiplex crowd-pleaser. The result is a handsomely mounted and emotionally engaging drama that smartly examines issues of race, class and gender while leaving nary a dry eye in the house.
Like Girl with a Pearl Earring (both Tracy Chevalier's novel and Peter Webber's subsequent film), Misan Sagay's inventive script takes inspiration from an enigmatic painting upon which the writer projects a heady mix of fact and fantasy. The unsigned picture at the heart of Belle (which once hung in Hampstead's grand Kenwood House) depicts what Asante calls "a bi-racial girl, a woman of colour, who's slightly higher than her white counterpart", a significant placement implying a social equality extraordinary in the late 18th century. But what does the hand of one young woman upon the waist of the other imply – sisterhood or rivalry? And what should we read from the expressions (playful? defiant? mischievous?) upon the faces of the artist's subjects?
This much we know; that Dido Elizabeth Belle – the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy captain, John Lindsay, and an African woman named Maria Belle – was raised at Kenwood House in north London by her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, where she became companion to her half-cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. As lord chief justice, Mansfield heard several significant slavery cases, including the 1772 Somerset v Stewart case (which questioned whether slavery was supported by common law), and the Zong ship case, which hinged upon the deliberate drowning of human "cargo". The latter of these forms the backdrop of Sagay's narrative, providing an Amistad -like framework for the discussion of human rights versus property law, arcane legal argument circling absolute moral imperative.
Describing her film as a hybrid of "the Jane Austen elements we know so well – the marriage market, the lives of girls growing up into society ladies, the romantic longing – combined with a story about the end of slavery", Asante paints an enthralling portrait of a woman struggling to define her identity, caught between stairs in terms of social custom and protocol. Too elevated to eat with the servants, yet too lowly to dine (in company, at least) with her "family", Dido must find her own space in a world in which her colour marks her as unique among her peers.
While this proves problematic enough within the confines of Kenwood House, her situation becomes more complicated still as the prospect of marriage looms, with both Dido and Elizabeth torn between variously unsuitable partners, fortune and standing starkly juxtaposed with love and affection in time-honoured fashion. Meanwhile, Dido's apparent influence upon the judgment of Lord Mansfield raises more than just eyebrows in polite society, as the country awaits his ruling on a case that cuts to the heart of the still-profitable slave trade.
Having earned her spurs in front of the camera before turning to writing and directing (she started out as one of the young stars of the BBC children's drama Grange Hill ), Asante clearly has an affinity with actors that enables her to get the very best from an impressive ensemble cast. Rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw is terrific as Dido, a nuanced performance that perfectly embodies the increasingly independent spirit who refuses to accept that – in issues of both race and gender – "we are but their property".
Tom Wilkinson is excellent, too, as the former idealist turned pragmatist Lord Mansfield, whose revulsion for slavery is matched by a desire not to frighten the horses of the British establishment (more than once, he is told that the country's economic stability rests upon his ruling).
As Lady Mary Murray, the unmarried keeper of the house whose mantle Dido seems either destined or doomed to inherit, Penelope Wilton raises several tragicomic laughs, her clipped diction and tremulous manner beautifully suggesting both disappointment with, and acceptance of, her unfulfilled lot. Meanwhile, Sam Reid brings something of the charm of a young Christopher Reeve to the part of clergyman's son John Davinier, a somewhat underwritten role (he teeters occasionally upon worthy caricature) in which he still manages to invest some square-jawed heft.
"I have been blessed with freedom twice over," Dido tells her soulmate, when financial stability offers the possibility of a future in which the rules of both marital and racial status are overturned. This is the heart of Asante's enjoyable and uplifting film, which seeks always to broaden its canvas and address the widest possible audience. Building on the promise of her award-winning 2004 debut feature A Way of Life , Belle confirms Asante as an assured and insightful film-maker who knows just how much window dressing a picture requires to make it appealing to the eye. Embracing sentiment without going soft on substance, she hides her stronger purpose beneath a facade of gentility in a manner that would make Jane Austen smile. Bravo!
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When he lectured on literature at Cornell University, Vladimir Nabokov referred to Jane Austen ’s 1814 novel " Mansfield Park " as a "fairy tale," a term he did not use disparagingly. He also obliquely noted that none of its fairy-tale romantic doings would have been possible were its characters not somewhat affluent, and that the source of the money that affords the characters their modes of living is "cheap slave labor." The observation is a bracing one. But it’s true that the economic system that guaranteed the incomes of the moneyed characters in Austen’s world was a criminal one, even if Austen herself remained neutral on the topic. And it is uncomfortable to think that the template for the rom-com was built on...well, do I have to spell it out for you? The new movie "Belle," which claims, like so many such efforts, to be based on actual events, is a novel work in that it takes on a topic not regularly treated in period drama, that is, the necessarily fraught place of a free black woman in proper British society in the late 18th/early 19th centuries.
Directed by Amma Asante from a script by Misan Sagay , "Belle" tells the story of an illegitimate mulatto child, daughter of a Royal Navy man, who’s raised in affluence, lavishly educated, and rather condescendingly doted upon by the extended family her father foisted her upon. Once the girl, named Belle by her father but called Dido by her uncle and aunts, reaches adulthood (at which point she is incarnated by the lovely and capable young actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw ), her marriage prospects seem...well, unusual. Good thing she’s got a guaranteed income, something her white not-exactly-sister Elizabeth ( Sarah Gadon ) does not, for reasons that a thorough reader of Jane Austen novels could probably guess at correctly.
As it happens, Dido’s uncle Lord Mansfield ( Tom Wilkinson ) is a judge, and in the main part of the film’s story, he’s hearing a case involving a slave ship and the question of whether human beings can be insured like cargo. Dido hears about the case in dribs and drabs, and then in more detail from a neighbor, a passionate vicar’s son ( Sam Reid ) who’s under Lord Mansfield’s tutelage, at least until they have a violent disagreement on the main issue of the case. Dido’s consciousness grows, as does her attraction to the vicar’s son. But at the same time, Dido’s aunts, played by Emily Watson and Penelope Wilton , seek to steer Dido into an engagement with Oliver Ashford (James Norton), son of a very scheming grand dame ( Miranda Richardson , of course) and younger brother to a bug-eyed bigoted quasi-rotter ( Tom Felton , who seems not at all concerned by the fact that he’s lately being cast as a Draco Malfoy For All Seasons).
The movie is intelligently written and well-acted, but it doesn’t sit all that comfortably between the two stools of Austenesque Romance and Socially Conscious Drama. Although director Asante herself is a woman of color her shooting style is as conventional as any veteran director you can, or can’t, name. Take the whole opening sequence, for instance, in which a sense of intrigue and drama is (putatively) built in a series of shots in which no faces are seen, merely feet and ankles taking strides, the backs of heads moving forward, hands opening carriage doors, and so on. All very stock, all very expected, at least if you’ve seen such montages as many times as I. So while "Belle" is of undeniable interest in some respects, its overall execution restricts it from being as engaging as it wants to be, and as wrenching as perhaps it ought.
Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here .
The Pigeon Tunnel
Rated PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle
Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield
Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford
Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth
Sam Reid as John Davinier
Matthew Goode as Captain Sir John Lindsay
Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield
Tom Felton as James Ashford
Penelope Wilton as Lady Mary Murray
- Amma Asante
- Misan Sagay
- Ben Smithard
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2013, Biography/History, 1h 43m
What to know
It boasts all the surface beauty that fans of period pictures have come to expect, but Belle also benefits from its stirring performances and subtle social consciousness. Read critic reviews
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Where to watch belle.
Watch Belle with a subscription on Hulu, rent on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu, or buy on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu.
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The illegitimate, mixed-race daughter (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) of a British admiral plays an important role in the campaign to abolish slavery in England.
Rating: PG (Some Language|Brief Smoking Images|Thematic Elements)
Genre: Biography, History, Drama
Original Language: English
Director: Amma Asante
Producer: Damian Jones
Writer: Amma Asante , Misan Sagay
Release Date (Theaters): May 2, 2014 limited
Release Date (Streaming): Feb 1, 2016
Box Office (Gross USA): $10.7M
Runtime: 1h 43m
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Production Co: Isle of Man Film, Pinewood, British Film Institute
Cast & Crew
Dido Elizabeth Belle
Lady Mary Murray
Sir John Lindsay
Pia Di Ciaula
Supervising Art Direction
News & Interviews for Belle
10 Biopics To Watch Immediately
Awards Leaderboard: Top Movies of 2014
British Independent Film Awards 2014 Winners
Critic Reviews for Belle
Audience reviews for belle.
Solid performances of a pretty remarkable story.
A handsome period drama about an admirable young woman who manages to maintain her dignity in a society ruled by certain laws that, as one character puts it, were in fact frameworks for crime - and the gracious script avoids clichés and proves to be surprisingly moving.
"Belle... the Lord and I have been friends for a mighty long time." You're chillin' out to some Al Green on CJEZ-Listening, because in a film titled "Belle" that is kind of about black people problems, which other musician are you going to make a reference to? There are plenty of songs of this film's name to pick from, because this film's title is pretty generic, although when it comes to the film itself, it is refreshing to see a British film about prejudice against blacks... and in British films actually set in Britain (You sure wouldn't forget that "12 Years a Slaves" is British if you looked into most of the staff's nationality). Well, it's not that refreshing if you're that one person who is familiar with director Amma Asante, because it's been ten years after "A Way of Life", and she's still on racism, so I reckon even the British sisters have to represent. Hey, I hate how black people were treated all over the world, and are still being treated in certain places, but there's enough carrying on about civil rights in liberal America, and now, "12 Years a Slave" is getting everyone in the UK up in arms. Well, that's probably a good thing, because, again, black people weren't doing so hot outside of America, and someone should address that even the Mulatto royals couldn't catch a break in the 17th century. If nothing else, it should make for an engaging story, and sure enough, it does here, even if this film tries a little too much harder than "12 Years a Slave" to be British. This film is so British that it comes complete with a great deal of dryness, with often bitingly witty, but stuffy dialogue and a subdued atmosphere which render the film, maybe not dull, but a little bland especially when the narrative is dragged out. There was never to be all that much activity in this film, not with a minimalist story concept that I will touch more upon here in a second, but just over 100 minutes still feels too long for momentum to be maintained within the storytelling that ends up dragging its way to a predictable point. British-grade dryness is not the only familiar trait in this film, which is generic something fierce as a predictable, trope-heavy portrait on high-class affairs in 18th century London, no matter how much they incorporate elements regarding race relations that are themselves conventional. This really is nothing new, to my surprise, and this film cannot afford to be so predictable, because, again, its story is thin enough as it is, carrying intriguingly worthy themes and heart, but basing it all around idle chit-chat and subdued action that the filmmakers sometimes try too hard to compensate for. Timely melodramatics come off as cloying from time to time, when Amma Asante's direction imbues the atmosphere with a sentimentality that could itself be compensated for if this film, even with its natural shortcomings, had some sort of edge, and didn't tap dance around strikingly harrowing visuals or a consistency in issues which would supplement the genuineness and the overall effectiveness of the thematic weight of this drama on racism and typical high-class issues. Let me tell you right now that if this story was told by a liberal American, it would have beaten you half to death with its themes, and as things stand, no matter how passionate Asante may be about ethnicity's rocky history in British society, - whose race issues have admittedly been underexplored in film - the overt subtlety counteracts many of the subtlety issues, but there is too much sensitivity and ambition in this dramatic interpretation of a story of only so much meat, and nearly no real originality. The final product ultimately sputters out quite a ways shy of what it wants to be, yet it does actually come close enough to endear, and immerse. Claudio Campa's and Ben Smith's immersive art direction is not particularly unique, although it is pretty lavish, joining production designer Simon Bowles and costume designer Anushia Nieradzik in restoring upper-class London with an extensive craftsmanship and handsomeness. Ben Smithard's cinematography further define the film's good looks, too chilled in color to stun, yet clean and well-lit enough to catch your eye time and again, while a score by the great Rachel Portman proves to beautiful in its violin-driven sentimentality, in spite of its being conventional and often abused by director Amma Asante at the expense of full dramatic subtlety. Asante is either overblown with her dramatic atmosphere or overly safe with her portrayal of pressing issues within the subject matter, and yet, she never gets too cloying, nor does she ever get too safe, and when she finds a proper balance in dramatic storytelling, her efforts resonate, compelling you with glimpses of what could have been. Indeed, there is some potential in this imagination of events surrounding a painting of the titular Dido Elizabeth Belle, which is melodramatic sure, but no more so than the usual British drama of this nature, being generally convincing, if familiar, and intimate, if minimalist, with themes on British race relations, challenging tradition with true love, and conflicts in family and honor. This subject matter does have a lot of promise, and for betrayal screenwriter Misan Sagay places against the potential, she delivers on enough sharp and recurring dialogue to hold your attention, and enough busy set pieces to keep dullness at bay, while fleshing out nuanced, compelling characters whose human value plays as instrumental a role as anything in making the film as engaging as it ultimately is. Quite frankly, it may be the performances that bring to such a point, for it is the portrayal of compelling characters that most compels, with standouts including Tom Wilkinson as a man of an integrity he aims to maintain alongside the love of his apparently blemished family, the lovely Sarah Gadon as a lady who fears for her struggles and the struggles of her best friend, Sam "Aussie Armie Hammer" Reid as an open-minded humanist with a questionable love interest, and, of course, leading lady Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a respectable, good-hearted lady who must face emotional devastation and uphold composure against the oppressions that fall over her as both a woman of black blood, and as a woman in general. Mbatha-Raw is not given the material to be stellar, but she is a revelation, a worthy, driving lead who helps greatly in defining the final product as compelling, in spite of its natural and consequential shortcomings. Overall, the film is a little blandly dry and tends to drag its feet, not unlike other British films of its type, but the tropes don't end there in this generic, conceptually thin, and either sentimentally or safely drawn story, thus, the final product fails to reward, but through immersive art direction, beautiful cinematography and score work, and a largely worthy story, brought to life by heartfelt direction and writing, and carried by a solid cast, Amma Asante's "Belle" stands as an improvable, but admirable portrait on racial and high-class social issues in 18th century England. 2.75/5 - Decent
An very good historical film tackling slavery, race and the class system in Enlightenment Era Britain. Excellent costumes and locations with a typically outstanding performance by Tom Wilkinson. Gugu Mbatha-Raw portrays strength and incredible vulnerability in a very effective way. Good performances all around -- well, except for Draco Malfoy who bumbles through the plot line like a Slytherin trapped in his Harry Potter school days. Despite Felton and the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time sound editor, the film is really, really worth seeing.
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- A love story and the value of being honest to yourself is what Belle is about. This movie transports you to the 1700s England. Based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle "Belle", this tale is about a young mulato girl named Belle that is brought into her father's house and caretaker of her great-uncle Lord Mansfield a honorable Chief Judge and wife. Belle has all the rights and privileges of upper society but her face reflects her slave mother and the prevailing social prejudice keeps her from being totally accepted into the formal social circles. At the same time, she befriends her cousin, who she considers a sister and is also given residence to this estate after her mother dies and her father abandons her. This story is beautifully layered with the issues of equality and slavery but is not preachy. It merely shows how the matters of the heart can't be prevented by the color of your skin. This coming of age story is masterfully told. I saw this film as part of the Atlanta Film Festival.
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‘Belle’ movie review: A period drama focused on a fractured family
Fans of romantic period drama have something to tide them over until the next Jane Austen adaptation. Set in 1769, “ Belle ” announces its intentions straightaway with a heartfelt reunion between a man and his illegitimate daughter, followed by an exceedingly tearful separation. But even the melodrama can’t put a damper on the remarkable history behind this true story.
Dido Elizabeth Belle was the daughter of British admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman, Maria Belle. After her mother died, and before her father was dispatched to who-knows-where, Dido was placed in the care of her father’s uncle, William Murray. The first Earl of Mansfield, Murray also happened to be lord chief justice, tasked with ruling on cases involving England’s slave trade.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a superb performance as Dido, a very confused young woman who exists in a state of limbo: She is too high-born to mingle with commoners and too dark-skinned to eat dinner with her own family. She is raised with her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who was abandoned by her father, and the pair grow up like sisters, although Dido isn’t afforded certain basic accommodations that Elizabeth is. And yet, Dido doesn’t question the order of things.
She feels loved by her adoptive parents, a great-aunt and great-uncle played by Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson, and another aunt (Penelope Wilton), a spinster governess. She also has freedom that Elizabeth does not: Elizabeth has been disowned, left with no dowry, while the death of Dido’s father leaves her a rich woman, so she doesn’t have to marry if she doesn’t want to.
But she has options in the form of two white men willing to buck the system to be with her. One is John Davinier (Sam Reid), a passionate aspiring lawyer and anti-slavery activist. The other, the son of a lord — a more suitable match, according to Dido’s adoptive father — is Oliver Ashford, played by James Norton.
The story transcends the predictable outcome of this love triangle. That thread is supplemented by the recurring theme of liberty and restriction. Dido was freed from slavery and poverty but remains imprisoned by societal prejudice, which pops up in the ugliest ways, especially during an altercation with Oliver’s brother, played by Tom Felton (the erstwhile Draco Malfoy from the “Harry Potter” movies, officially typecast). During one heartbreaking scene, Dido stares in the mirror rubbing desperately at her skin as if her race is merely a smudge that could be wiped away.
Yet Elizabeth, who looks like she belongs among the lords and ladies, is penniless and also shackled by society. Her adoptive parents tell her she has to marry rich, and she laments that she’s become mere property, while Dido can do as she pleases.
The most interesting story line involves Lord Mansfield’s work as he decides the Zong massacre case, in which a ship of slave traders threw 142 slaves overboard, claiming it was necessary because supplies were running low. As if that wasn’t horrifying enough, the owners of the Zong then tried to get insurance money for the financial loss. (The trial was not a murder case but an issue of insurance fraud.) Whether Lord Mansfield will side with the insurance company or the slave traders becomes a point of contention in the family.
The movie packs a lot in, and the quick pace of early scenes can feel like running on a treadmill, but “Belle” settles into a nice rhythm. It ends up having all the requisites of a period drama — a strings-heavy soundtrack, lavish costumes and passionate declarations of love — plus a good deal more.
PG. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema, Landmark’s Bethesda Row and Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains thematic elements, some strong language and brief smoking images. 104 minutes.
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Important, affecting, engrossing drama for tweens and up.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Strong messages in favor of activism -- i.e. it
There are plenty of bad apples in the time period
Harsh words are directed at a mixed-race woman. La
Some flirting; one kiss.
Characters use the word "negro" as an in
Social drinking; some smoking (accurate for the ti
Parents need to know that Belle is a deeply affecting, fascinating drama that brings to light a true story about a mixed-race woman -- the illegitimate daughter of a British admiral in the late 1700s -- who becomes an activist (and a worthy role model!) by educating herself and her uncle on the perils of the…
Strong messages in favor of activism -- i.e. it's important to fight the status quo if it's hurting others, even if that means making yourself vulnerable. Fighting slavery is a key theme of the movie. Issues of race and gender equality are treated with sensitivity and grace.
Positive Role Models
There are plenty of bad apples in the time period in which Belle takes place, but there are also plenty of people who are loving and caring. Dido (aka Belle) is curious, courageous, and trailblazing. John Davinier questions authority in the right way, effecting change in the right way, and Lord Mansfield is a thoughtful, caring father-figure and judge.
Violence & Scariness
Harsh words are directed at a mixed-race woman. Later, a man is shown gripping her too tightly while threatening her. Women and minorities are treated hurtfully with condescension and prejudice.
Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Violence & Scariness in your kid's entertainment guide.
Sex, Romance & Nudity
Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Sex, Romance & Nudity in your kid's entertainment guide.
Characters use the word "negro" as an insult, there is one "damn" and two uses of "Good Lord."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Social drinking; some smoking (accurate for the time period).
Did you know you can flag iffy content? Adjust limits for Drinking, Drugs & Smoking in your kid's entertainment guide.
Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Belle is a deeply affecting, fascinating drama that brings to light a true story about a mixed-race woman -- the illegitimate daughter of a British admiral in the late 1700s -- who becomes an activist (and a worthy role model!) by educating herself and her uncle on the perils of the slave trade. Though the movie has no curse words and no overtly sexual situations (there's one kiss), the subject matter is complex and perhaps too heavy for very young kids. But older kids, tweens, and teens would do well to see it, as it explores issues of race and gender equality with sensitivity and grace. There's much to learn here from the struggles of 18th-century England, with lessons still applicable today. To stay in the loop on more movies like this, you can sign up for weekly Family Movie Night emails .
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- Parents say (10)
- Kids say (3)
Based on 10 parent reviews
Light movie with strong and important message
One scene of minor abuse & racism, what's the story.
Upon the death of her West Indian mother, Maria Belle, young Dido Elizabeth Belle (played as a woman by Gugu Mbatha-Raw ) is whisked away to England by her white father, Captain John Lindsay ( Matthew Goode ), who wants her to be raised among the aristocracy. Because her father must return to sea, Dido is raised by his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield William Murray ( Tom Wilkinson ), a firm but kind guardian and a very important judge, and his wife, Lady Mansfield ( Emily Watson ). Dido is loved by her family, including her young cousin, Elizabeth ( Sarah Gadon ), who struggles with the standards imposed on women during the late 1700s -- i.e. having to appear to be a good match for a man, with little regard for whether she might find marrying him desirable. But Dido faces an even bigger struggle. Not only is she a woman in a patriarchal society, because of her mixed-race background, she's also treated as invisible (or worse) by almost everyone outside her household. When her great-uncle is called upon to decide a case that could lay the foundation for abolishing slavery, Dido finds her voice with the help of John Davinier ( Sam Reid ), the activist son of a clergyman.
Is It Any Good?
BELLE is an important, engrossing, and incredibly affecting movie. It sheds light on a story -- based on true events though fictionalized to a degree here -- that could have languished in history books and dissertations if not for director Amma Asante and lead actress Mbatha-Raw, who've turned it into cinematic reality. It's complicated in the best way; viewers will find themselves mulling over the issues of race, class, and gender equality long after viewing. In scene after scene, Asante unpacks the layers of prejudice and oppression that cloaked British society in the late 1700s. And though Dido lived hundreds of years ago, her struggles to define her identity and fight discrimination, in thought, speech, and actions, are still relevant in today's world.
Though it helps that screenwriter Misan Sagay sometimes takes great pains to ensure that viewers understand what's at stake here -- that the decision Lord Mansfield is about to hand down could be the first major step in abolishing British slave trade -- there may be a few too many turns in the script. The connection that needs to be emphasized is complicated and very significant, true, but the dialogue is a trifle too pointed, with the significance repeated many times, which doesn't let viewers connect the clear dots themselves. The writing also sometimes sacrifices wit for instruction. But the good far outweighs the (trifling) bad, especially when it comes to the outstanding ensemble of the cast. Wilkinson and Watson are superb as Lord and Lady Mansfield, renegades in their own right, and Mbatha-Raw approaches her role with great care and delicacy. She and Gadon are delightful to watch together, as is the entire movie.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about Belle 's messages. Is it easy to stand up for what's right? Why is it important to do so, even when everything seems to be against you? Can you think of any modern situations with parallels to what's covered in the movie?
Belle is based on a true story. Do you think it's 100% accurate? Why might filmmakers choose to alter or adjust historical fact? How could you find out more about the real people involved in the story?
How does Dido change over the course of the movie? To what do you attribute her growth? Is she a positive role model ?
- In theaters : May 2, 2014
- On DVD or streaming : August 26, 2014
- Cast : Gugu Mbatha-Raw , Tom Wilkinson , Emily Watson
- Director : Amma Asante
- Inclusion Information : Black directors, Female actors, Black actors
- Studio : Fox Searchlight
- Genre : Drama
- Topics : Great Girl Role Models , History
- Run time : 103 minutes
- MPAA rating : PG
- MPAA explanation : thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images
- Last updated : August 25, 2023
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.
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Toronto Film Review: ‘Belle’
The pleasures of Jane Austen and the horrors of the British slave trade make a surprisingly elegant fit in Amma Asante's handsome period piece.
By Justin Chang
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Incongruous as it may seem, the pleasures of Jane Austen and the horrors of the British slave trade make a surprisingly elegant and emotionally satisfying fit in “ Belle ,” director Amma Asante ‘s biographical drama about how an exceedingly rare member of 18th-century high society, a woman of mixed English and African ancestry, did her part to push the empire one step closer to abolition. On one level a classically Hollywood tale of white aristocrats deigning to help end black suffering, this handsome period piece nonetheless tells a continually fascinating, unusually layered story located at the juncture of three different lines of oppression (race, class, gender), and grounded by a protagonist with one hell of an identity crisis. Slated for a March release by Fox Searchlight, clearly the slavery-conscious distributor of the moment with this and the much harder-hitting “12 Years a Slave” on its docket, “Belle” should have a ball with arthouse audiences and boasts strong crossover potential.
The relative absence of known facts about Dido Elizabeth Belle gave screenwriter Misan Sagay (“Their Eyes Were Watching God”) considerable artistic license in framing the young woman’s story within the broader historical context of a slave-centered economy slowly entering its death throes. It is 1769 when young Dido (Lauren Julien-Box), the illegitimate daughter of Capt. Sir John Lindsay ( Matthew Goode ) and an African slave, is sent to live with her aristocratic great-uncle, Lord Mansfield ( Tom Wilkinson ), the highest chief justice in the land. Lindsay, who loves his daughter and has embraced her without shame, pleads with his relatives to look after her while he returns to his Royal Navy service; Assante and Sagay wring some mild comedy from the first meeting as Lady Mansfield ( Emily Watson ) processes the shocking news that the girl is black (“a detail you chose not to share with us!”).
But to live under the Mansfields’ roof is indeed Dido’s birthright, and her relatives grudgingly accept her as a member of the family, bestowing on her a strict, demanding kind of love that, even within their own home, is governed by stiff formalities. One of the story’s more astonishing details is the fact that Dido (played for most of the film by Gugu Mbatha-Raw ) is not allowed to dine with her own relations, especially when they are entertaining guests; on such occasions, it is the girl’s habit to join the guests after dinner and witness their varying states of shock, amusement and indignation at seeing the rumors of Lord Mansfield’s “mulatto” grand-niece confirmed. Yet Dido’s is hardly a joyless existence: She and her half-cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray ( Sarah Gadon ), are as close as sisters, Elizabeth having also been left in the Mansfields’ care since childhood.
The crowdpleasing Austen elements here are unmistakable, from Lady Mansfield’s fussy determination to ensure that both her girls are adequately provided for, to the Elizabeth-and-Darcy tension that develops between Dido and John Davinier ( Sam Reid ), Lord Mansfield’s handsome, outspoken legal apprentice. “Belle” is also a Cinderella story of sorts: While Sarah is groomed for her introduction to society and courtship, Dido is initially kept out of sight, not out of malice or jealousy, but rather a desire to shield her and the family from gossip. Yet in one of the drama’s many delicious ironies, it is Dido who turns out to have the upper hand as the heiress to her father’s fortune, granting her financial stability, a measure of social currency and a freedom to move about in all-white circles that was unheard of for a black woman at the time; by contrast, Sarah has scarcely a penny to her name and must marry well in order to secure her future.
The key fascination of “Belle” lies in its complex portrait of upper-class priorities coming into conflict — in this case, the historic segregation of blacks and whites, but also the deep-seated conviction that money should ideally marry money. Asante and Sagay prove particularly attentive to the reality that greed tends to trump prejudice, as when the imperious Lady Ashford ( Miranda Richardson ), upon learning of Dido’s deep pockets, grudgingly agrees to let her son Oliver (James Norton) court the girl. Rather less open-minded is Oliver’s brother, James, a sneering bigot played by Tom Felton as a sort of distant ancestor to Draco Malfoy.
All this unfolds at a time when the ground is shifting beneath Britain’s feet with regard to slavery, a moral abomination that is nonetheless of vital importance to the national economy. Lending the story its necessary historical heft is the Zong massacre of 1781, a notorious incident in which 142 disease-ridden Africans were hurled from a slave ship and drowned so that the owners might claim insurance for their damaged “cargo.” The legal case comes before Lord Mansfield, whose decision will have far-reaching implications for the slave trade and the ongoing treatment of blacks as disposable goods rather than as human beings, and Dido and John find themselves bonding as they attempt to persuade the judge to make the right ruling.
What the right ruling is, and whether Lord Mansfield will make it, is of course never in doubt from the standpoint of the enlightened viewer; every passionate speech and argument here feels calculated for maximum impact and expositional clarity, all the way up to a rousing “Lincoln”-style courtroom climax. Like too many prestige productions, “Belle” unfolds not in a truly unsettling present tense, but rather with the reassuring hindsight of history, encouraging audiences to watch from a comfortable 300-year distance and congratulate themselves for their superiority to the various confused and cowardly aristocrats onscreen.
That the film still works as well as it does is due to not only its polished craftsmanship and disarming comedy-of-manners approach, but also its fascinating insights into the conflicted mindset of British society, particularly in response to the poised and exquisite dark-skinned woman who suddenly appears in their midst. For Mbatha- Raw , who has worked primarily in English television, “Belle” does amount to a Hollywood coming-out party of sorts, and the actress makes a captivating heroine; exuding the dignity and restraint of a young woman well accustomed to unequal treatment, she’s nonetheless unafraid to let fly a few verbal darts as occasion arises, delivered with a fiery eloquence in the best Austen tradition.
The tender sisterly dynamic between Dido and Elizabeth, whose mutual affection and desire for each other’s well-being trumps any sense of rivalry, is one of the film’s chief pleasures, and Gadon gives a spirited yet vulnerable performance as a charming young woman whose lot in life is in many ways inferior to that of her disadvantaged cousin. Wilkinson and Watson are superb as Lord and Lady Mansfield, their fussy sense of propriety barely concealing their love for their adopted daughters. Penelope Wilton (“Downton Abbey”) is on hand to throw in some comic relief and spinsterish good advice as Lord Mansfield’s unmarried sister, and Richardson makes Lady Ashford a bitchy hoot. Only Reid is a bit of a drip as the lawyer who sometimes loses control of his emotions as he gives voice to his noble convictions; he’s a character you admire but wish would shut up once in a while.
Asante’s first film since her 2004 kitchen-sink debut, “A Way of Life,” finds her working in a decidedly different and much more expensive register. The production is firmly ensconced in the tradition of quality, thanks to Ben Smithard ‘s picturesque widescreen lensing, Simon Bowles’ lavish production design, Anushia Nieradzik’s beautifully detailed costumes, Rachel Portman ‘s unsubtly emotive score, and a general air of good taste that would seem more stultifying were the material not so intrinsically compelling.
Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 8, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 103 MIN.
- Production: (U.K.) A Fox Searchlight Pictures (in U.S./U.K.) release and presentation, with Isle of Man Film, Pinewood Pictures and BFI, in association with Head Gear Films and Metrol Technology, of a DJ Films production. Produced by Damian Jones. Executive producers, Steve Christian, Julie Goldstein, Ivan Dunleavy, Steve Norris, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Christopher Collins. Co-producers, Jane Robertson, Robert Norris.
- Crew: Directed by Amma Asante. Screenplay, Misan Sagay. Camera (color, Arri widescreen), Ben Smithard; editors, Pia Di Ciaula, Victoria Boydell; music, Rachel Portman; music supervisor, Maggie Rodford; production designer, Simon Bowles; supervising art director, Ben Smith; art director, Claudio Campana; set decorator, Tina Jones; costume designer, Anushia Nieradzik; sound (Dolby Digital), Alistair Crocker; supervising sound editor, Lee Herrick; sound designer, Robert Ireland; re-recording mixers, Brendan Nicholson, Andrew Caller; special effects supervisor, Chris Reynolds; visual effects supervisor, Henry Badgett; visual effects, BlueBolt; assistant director, Martin Curry; casting, Toby Whale.
- With: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Tom Felton, James Norton, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Lauren Julien-Box.
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To the Manner Born?
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By Manohla Dargis
- May 1, 2014
No bodices seem to have been harmed, much less ripped, during the making of “Belle,” a period film at once sweeping and intimate, about an 18th-century Englishwoman who transcends her historical moment. Even so, peekaboo bosoms tremble throughout the movie amid the rustle of luxurious gowns and the gasps of polite company as conventions are crushed underfoot. Melodramatic and grounded in history , “Belle” is enough of an old-fashioned entertainment that it could have been made in classic Hollywood. Well, except for one little thing that would have probably given old studio suits apoplexy: The movie’s prettily flouncing title character is biracial.
You meet her as a child, just as she’s being taken by her father, a navy captain, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), from some shadowy mystery hovel to a large country manor. There, in an elegantly appointed room, the kind that announces the refinement of its inhabitants and whispers their entitlement, Sir John formally claims the child as his own and promptly hands her over to his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson, very good), and Lady Mansfield (a dry, funny Emily Watson). The Lord and Lady keep their lips, necks and manners stiff, but take the girl in and raise her as their own — or almost. Soon she’s laughing in the garden, and then she’s a genteel beauty (a fine Gugu Mbatha-Raw) facing life as a black woman in a slave-trading country.
She’s based on Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) , the daughter of an African woman, Maria Bell, who was probably enslaved and maybe captured off a ship by Sir John. The details of their association and Bell’s life are murky, but when Dido was young, Sir John took her to Lord Mansfield, who raised her alongside another grandniece, Elizabeth Murray (played by a strong Sarah Gadon). In one account, Thomas Hutchinson, a governor of Massachusetts, described visiting the family: “a Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies” and later walked arm in arm with one. “She had a very high cap, and her wool was much frizzled in her neck,” Hutchinson wrote , “but not enough to answer the large curls in fashion. She is neither handsome nor genteel — pert enough.”
An unusual painting of her and Elizabeth that shows the women smiling side by side on a terrace — both in silk gowns and pearls, and staring directly at us — suggests that there was far more to Dido than Hutchinson’s shabby account. The double portrait, often attributed to Johann Zoffany, now hangs in Scone Palace in Scotland but was painted at Kenwood House in Hampstead, England, where Dido lived for the first 30 or so years of her life. It’s an exciting image because she wasn’t painted in a traditional subservient pose but instead assumes an almost — if not quite — equal place with her cousin on the canvas. While Elizabeth stands as still as a vase, the somewhat exoticized Dido (she wears a turban) seems to have been, evocatively, captured in midflight.
The vivaciousness of Dido’s image doesn’t always come through in the movie portrait, which the director, Amma Asante, has created in the Merchant-Ivory school of serious, tasteful entertainments. It’s easy to mock such films, with their pretty manners and people, but, at their best, they open a door onto an old world that is sometimes more fragile, brittle, imperiled and considerably more complex than its sumptuous trappings at first suggest. Likewise here, Dido and her cousin, both cosseted and corseted, exist in near-pastoral harmony, yet their lives are nowhere as carefree as they seem. Elizabeth has a complicated history and needs, much like a Jane Austen heroine, to marry to ensure her future. And while Dido may be one of the family, she’s also sometimes kept segregated.
Written by Misan Sagay, “Belle” tracks its heroine’s dawning awareness of both her own social, political and legal position and that of the black slaves who, initially, exist for her only as abstractions. Her education comes through her uncle, the Lord Chief Justice, who has to decide on a horribly real case involving the Zong slave ship, as well as from an amusingly dashing suitor, John Davinier (Sam Reid). The movie plays with the historical record for dramatic effect, as is often the case when the past is disinterred for entertainment, and its realism at times groans under the weight of too many passionate speeches. Yet the weave of the personal and the political finally proves as irresistible as it is moving, partly because it has been drawn from extraordinary life.
“Belle” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). Squeaky clean.
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Belle, film review: Pride and prejudice in a better class of costume drama
(12a) amma asante, 104 mins starring: gugu mbatha-raw, tom wilkinson, emily watson, sarah gadon, article bookmarked.
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For British film-makers, the costume drama is a means of escape. By filling the screen with bonnets, brooches and hansom cabs while decking out characters in wigs and crinolines, they avoid pressing contemporary issues.
Amma Asante's second feature is unusual in that it offers traditional genre pleasures – meticulous period detail, stirring character performances, heritage trappings – and yet it deals frankly with race, class and gender. It boasts the nuanced dialogue and courtship rituals you expect to find in Jane Austen adaptations but it isn't based on a classic novel. The screenplay by Misan Sagay takes its inspiration from a late 18th-century painting of Lady Elizabeth Murray, great niece of the Earl of Mansfield, and her cousin, Dido Elizabeth Belle. In the painting, the two young women are beautiful, mischievous and flirtatious. They appear as equals. It also so happens that Dido is black.
Belle is very far removed from Asante's Bafta-winning debut feature, A Way of Life (2004), a social-realist drama that looked at racism, anti-Muslim prejudice and youth unemployment in a deprived town in South Wales. The setting this time round is upper class 18th-century London. Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Captain John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). She is taken to London as a child and is brought up at Kenwood House in Hampstead by the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), alongside her cousin, Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon).
Dido is both blessed and cursed. She is accepted into the Earl's family as an (almost) equal member. She is too high in status to dine with their servants and yet too low to dine with the family when there are guests. "She is black!" one character exclaims in disbelief after seeing her for the first time. She is referred to as "Lord Mansfield's infamous mulatto".
In the period in which the film is set, the early 1780s, slavery is a major driver of the British economy. As Dido is coming to adulthood, the notorious case of the "Zong massacre" is being contested in the courts. During the last voyage of the Zong, a British-owned ship, 142 African slaves had been thrown overboard. The owners had claimed that there was not sufficient water to keep the slaves alive and had then, perversely, tried to claim on their insurance for the men they had killed (their human cargo).
- Belle is a different class of costume drama
- An introduction to 18th-century London's black community
Belle attempts (not altogether successfully) to combine the story of the Zong trial with an account of Dido's life as a young woman in upper-class London. At times, it seems as if two separate films have been grafted together. In one, Dido and Lady Elizabeth are young ingenues looking for potential husbands. In the other, a case is passing through the courts which could lead to the abolition of slavery. We hear references to the horrific conditions in which the slaves were kept in the Zorn but most of the film is set in the drawing rooms, dining rooms and gardens of aristocratic homes. The main link between the two worlds is Lord Mansfield, who is Lord Chief-Justice.
The film is filled with redoubtable British character actors. Tom Wilkinson gives a subtle performance as Lord Mansfield, engaged in his own private battle between curmudgeonliness and enlightenment. Miranda Richardson evokes memories of Blackadder with her comic turn as the mercenary Lady Ashford, on the prowl for well-born daughters for her two sons, Oliver (James Norton) and James (Tom Felton). There's a hint of Edith Evans about Emily Watson's steely and protective Lady Mansfield and Penelope Wilton is equally formidable as Lord Mansfield's unmarried sister. For all the courtly language, it is made very clear that there is a ruthless jostling for position in society and that young men without inheritances will go to extreme lengths to secure their positions.
Mbatha-Raw brings fieriness and sensitivity to Dido, who could have seemed one-dimensional if not played with conviction. She gives a sense of the inner life of a character who is proud and defiant but also trying to work out where she stands in an openly racist society.
Belle seems a little soft-centred, at least compared to a film as tough as 12 Years a Slave. The romantic subplot is conventional. Dido becomes a desirable catch because of her inheritance and yet her affections lie with John Davinier (Sam Reid), the impoverished son of a clergyman. He shares her sense of social injustice and feeling of not belonging. This is a feelgood movie in which we know that the most principled characters will triumph (or, at least, marry happily). The screenplay ends abruptly and leaves it to the intertitles to explain what happened to the characters whose plot lines it doesn't have time or inclination to pursue.
Even so, it is a mystery as to why Asante, a former child star on Grange Hill, has had to wait a decade between directing her first and second features. Perhaps today's British film industry has the same closed-minded attitudes about gender and race as the 18th-century high-society London recreated here. With Belle, Asante has succeeded in making a sweeping costume drama that confronts questions of race and gender head on – something that Merchant Ivory films rarely managed to do.
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- It’s Dove Approved – Family Movie Trivia Game
- Dove Ratings
“Belle” is a remarkable and compelling drama, inspired by true events! Gugu Mbatha-Raw is terrific as Dido Elizabeth Belle, a woman that had a British Admiral for her father and a slave woman for her mother. Her father eventually goes overseas, never to return, and Dido’s mother dies. She goes to live with Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson), which allows her social privileges. She also inherits her father’s fortune. She eventually meets a young man named Oliver Ashford (James Norton) that takes a liking to her. However, Oliver’s brother is “repulsed” by the idea of his brother romancing a woman of mixed breeding.
The movie powerfully demonstrates that, despite her station in life, Dido still has prejudices and racial tensions to deal with in her social life which almost overwhelms her with frustration. “Belle” features breathtaking cinematography and top notch acting and a tight story. We are happy to award the film our Dove “Family-Approved” Seal for ages twelve plus. This period piece contains life situations and difficulties that are relatable to modern audiences. We are pleased that this movie has earned five Doves from us. Get to the theater soon to see it.
Dove Rating Details
A frustrated woman hits herself in her head, chest and arms; a man roughly grabs a woman; the mention of slaves that were violently treated on a ship.
A man hints to his brother that he would like to have sex with a woman; a brother replies that one should sample a woman on the cotton fields of India; a mother warns her son about having "intercourse" with a woman.
Good Lord-5; D-1
Wine with meals; wine at a party, the mention of "crying drunks"; pipe smoking.
Cleavage in several scenes due to the clothing of the period; a close-up of cleavage in one scene; nude statues are seen a few times with some of them covering up private parts.
Tension and arguments between several characters; racial attitudes; the subject of slavery and its bondage to people; a man that likes a woman of mixed races is told it is "repulsive".
Film information, dove content.