At first one recoils at what seems like a gimmick, a film engineered to create a genteel, easy-to-swallow tale of the slave era where good and evil are perfectly obvious and a nearly impossible romance set against a virulently racist society can blossom.
But a few early scenes featuring the astute writing and direction of the all-female team of Misan Sagay and Amma Asante begin to sway you. Then the confident skills of the film’s British cast takes ahold.
Gradually, you realize that while attention is paid to slavery, romance and aspects of Georgian courtship, the film is really an astute portrayal of political maneuvers along the lines of “Lincoln,” “The West Wing” or even “House of Cards.”
In a battle over slavery, Britain’s economy mainstay in the 1780s, each side carefully plays to its strength, brings enormous pressure to bear where it will do the most good (or rather evil in some instances) and weighs every utterance for its power and passion.
Words count hugely. In our current era of Internet bullying and loose, intemperate language that does no good to any cause, it’s enormously satisfying to hear this clarion call from a distant past — to hear passionate viewpoints articulated in razor-sharp verbiage rather than loud-mouthed curses.
The story comes close to historical fiction in that little is know about its titular heroine other than the fact of her astonishing 1779 portrait, which hangs in Scone Palace at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
The painting shows two beautifully coiffed and costumed young ladies from that society, one white and the other black, seemingly at ease with one another.
Surprised at this painting, depicting a racial equality that did not exist at that time, Sagay did some research. She discovered the black girl, Dido Elizabeth Belle, was the illegitimate mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral, raised with her half-cousin, Elizabeth Murray, her companion in the painting, by her father’s great uncle, none other than Lord Mansfield, the nation’s Chief Justice.
Indeed this is the same Chief Justice who in two rulings, especially a case involving the Zong slave ship, ultimately struck fatal blows against the British slave trade.
The story has Dido’s father (Matthew Goode) pluck her from a port side slum and bring her to Lord and Lady Mansfield (those stalwart English actors Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) to rear.
After much hand-wringing over her unacceptable skin color — “a detail you chose not to share with us!” huffs Lady Mansfield — the couple does just that. And does so with great love all the while taking care to observe that society’s proprieties. Meaning they make no effort to disguise Dido’s family ties but when guests come to dine, she is not permitted at the table in her own home.
Dido (now played as a young woman by a remarkable TV actress named Gugu Mbatha-Raw, pictured left) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth (“A Dangerous Method’s” Sarah Gadon) grow up as sisters. The Austen elements now kick in as the Mansfields must insure that both girls are adequately provided for.
Dido gets into an Elizabeth-Darcy face-off with Lord Mansfield’s handsome legal apprentice, the strong abolitionist John Davinier (Same Reid), while Sarah is groomed for real courtship. Yet in a dramatic twist, Dido becomes the heiress when her father dies but Sarah is virtually penniless and must marry well to secure a future.
It turns out that this society is more bigoted when it comes to money than race. Upon learning of Dido’s fortune, the imperious Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson), reluctantly agrees to let her second-eldest boy Oliver (James Norton), who will not inherit the family estate, to court this black (and rich) woman.
His brother James (Tom Felton) is openly contemptuous of Dido, coming off here as a caricature of bigotry, one that nevertheless had its archetypes in that society. While attracted to Sarah, when James learns of her (mis)fortune, he drops her like that well-known potato.
In the background but slowly moving front and center is a case before Lord Mansfield involving the Zong slave ship massacre of 1781, a notorious incident in which disease-ridden Africans where chucked overboard to drown so their owners might claim insurance for their “damaged cargo.”
You can pretty much guess where this is going and if not you can look it up online. But the movie plays this out in a multi-layered, fascinating style and provides numerous insights into social injustice then and now.
The British really know how to construct these historical pieces so their actors can carry the day and “Belle” is no exception. The family estates are populated with so many people — read roles — that even a seemingly minor one such as Lord Mansfield’s spinster sister, played by Penelope Wilton (“Downton Abbey”), brings sly wit to the part.
Needless to say but I guess I’ll say it anyway, the key roles are performed flawlessly. Everything is well supported by Ben Smithard’s eye-catching, wide-screen camera, Rachel Portman’s evocative score and Simon Bowles’ lavish production design.
Opens: May 2, 2014 (Fox Searchlight)
Production companies: Fox Searchlight, Isle of Man Film Pinewood Pictures and BFI present in association with Head Gear Films and Metrol Technology a DJ Films production
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Tom Felton, James Norton, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson
Director: Amma Asante
Screenwriter: Misan Sagay
Producer: Damian Jones
Executive producers: Steve Christian, Julie Goldstein, Ivan Dunleavy, Steve Norris, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Christian Collins
Director of photography: Ben Smithard
Production designer: Simon Bowles
Music: Rachel Portman
Costume designer: Anaushia Nieradzik
Editors: Pia Di Ciauka, Victoria Boydell
PG rating, 105 minutes