Of course Belle, the new British biopic, is based on a true story. And naturally the dramatics have been heightened and liberties have been taken with the truth to construct a driving storyline. But considering the blatant manipulations, the results are compelling.
In only her second film, Amma Asante directs with the hand of a veteran, showing a sharp visual eye and a knack for a steady rhythm. Misan Sagay’s rich script provides Asante with plenty of drama, societal conflict, character development, and ample opportunities for the director to distinguish individual scenes.
Among the excellent ensemble British cast, the standout performance belongs to the title character, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Not universally well-known but professionally active, she captures the vicissitudes of her character while delivering her dialogue flawlessly.
When first seen, Dido Elizabeth Belle is a child with her father, Captain John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), whom she has just met for the first time. Her mother, a slave, has died, and Lindsay has retrieved the child and taken her to the massive Hampstead Estate of his aunt and uncle, Lady and Lord Mansfield (Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson). Lindsay then leaves her there before he returns to sea.
Flash ahead to the 1770s and Belle has been raised almost as one of the family. Almost. She has become sisterly to Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), but her color keeps her apart both socially and intimately. Belle muses that her status lies above the servants but below the family.
Sagay’s script presents parallel storylines as Elizabeth goes out into society in hopes of marrying, while Belle, although endowed with a dowry from her father, languishes in public acceptance.
Simultaneously, Lord Mansfield serves as England’s highest judge, the lord chief justice, and faces making a court decision connected to slavery.
At times, the conflicts lend themselves to sanctimonious preaching about what everyone today would easily recognize as blatant injustices and the need for remedy. But in 1770, such enlightenment was still a challenge, which now gives Belle its resonance.
Rated PG, 104 minutes
Opens Friday, May 9 at Magnolia, Plano Angelika