Set in late 1700s England and inspired by a true story, the film focuses on real-life Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a half-black, half-white woman raised by her father’s (Matthew Goode) aunt (Emily Watson) and uncle (Tom Wilkinson), Lady and Lord Mansfield. Belle is raised alongside her cousin, Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), and the two bond like sisters. Lady and Lord Mansfield treat Belle as an equal member of the family, except when company comes to visit. Then, the social mores of the time take hold and Belle dines separately.
The film traces Belle’s coming of age at the manor house, a time that is largely undocumented in history, so that gives the filmmakers some freedom in telling her story. Unfortunately, the story they tell is pretty predictable. Lord Mansfield is a powerful judge ruling on the Zong Massacre case, which of course draws Belle’s curiosity. She also falls in love with a young lawyer, John Davinier (Sam Reid), who is very progressive in his views. She also deals with the prejudices of the other aristocrats who curry the Mansfields’ favor.
There is, surprisingly, plenty of humor in Belle, which is great. A lot of the humor comes from Lady Mary (Penelope Wilton), Belle’s aunt who is unmarried and runs the manor house. Also, despite the predictable, paint-by-numbers nature of the film, it really is a touching story, which is due mainly to the stellar performances from the cast.
Mbatha-Raw, who has been best known for her television work, puts in a breakout turn as Belle. Her captivating beauty is equaled by her impassioned performance—she’s great. Wilkinson and Watson do fantastic jobs as does the aforementioned Wilton. Wilkinson is great at masking Lord Mansfield’s thoughts on his ruling until the time comes. Tom Felton puts in a villainous turn as one of Elizabeth’s suitors and has basically cemented himself as typecast forever as Draco Malfoy.
Overall, Belle is a pleasant film that tells an interesting historical story. The way the story plays out isn’t incredibly original, but the interplay between the cast members keeps the audience engaged, while Belle’s struggles against late-18th Century society will tug at audience members’ heartstrings.