Belle is one of those now-rare old-fashioned romantic period dramas with no violence, no foul language and no sex. It’s rated G, of all things (in Canada at least), the kind of family film that could have been made sixty years ago. This is by no means a criticism. On the contrary, I have nothing but praise for a film that dispenses with all the trappings supposedly needed to attract today’s moviegoers (e.g. things like action and special effects) and concentrates instead on the kind of intelligent dialogue which made films in the 40’s and 50’s so much better than the average films made today. Sure, Belle has its flaws, including a plot which is as predictable as they come, but what a relief to see a gorgeous, beautifully-scored, well-acted, intelligent film about really important stuff. There can never be enough of such films.
Inspired by a true story, Belle, directed by Amma Asante, tells the tale of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, a young woman in 18th-century London whose father (whom she only knew for a few hours) was a navy officer and whose mother (whom she never knew at all) was an African slave rescued by her father. With her father out at sea (where he will perish before Dido has a chance to see him again), Dido is brought up by her father’s parents in an estate north of London. Her grandfather (Lord Mansfield) is none other than the Lord Chief Justice, the most powerful judge in Britain. Mansfield is about to hand down a decision about an insurance claim on the death of 142 slaves, who were thrown overboard on a voyage to England (supposedly due to a water shortage). Dido has rather strong views on the subject, as does a certain idealist son of the local vicar, a man who wants to be a lawyer and is constantly challenging Mansfield.
Okay, the romance is strictly chick-flick country and the film didn’t have to be quite so simplistic and obvious. But whatever its faults, Belle manages to tackle issues like racism, sexism, classism and the place of law in the 18th century in a way that actually still contributes to these discussions in the 21st century and that’s quite a feat. When you add in solid performances by all involved, especially Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido, Tom Wilkinson as Mansfield, Penelope Wilton as Dido’s spinster aunt and Sam Reid as the vicar’s son, as well all the things mentioned above, and then stir in the fact much of Belle was filmed at Kenwood House, near where we lived for eight years and the fact that I was engrossed throughout, you have created (in my opinion) quite a delicious treat, which gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.