Period dramas always run the risk of lacking subtlety and devolving in to a mushy drabness that results in tedium, so a balance between all the spectacular frocks and clipped accents and an interesting, intriguing drama is vital. Luckily, director Amma Asante found a wonderful true story to base her film on, and also casts a great actress in the shape of Gugu Mbatha-Raw as main character Dido Elizabeth Belle. While it undoubtedly wears its emotions on its sleeve and the imposing soundtrack by Rachel Portman is never far away, twanging away at your heart strings with lots of sorrowful violins that are brought to the forefront by Asante, the script, written by Misan Sagay, and the acting is of enough quality that it overcomes its melodramatic side and becomes a truly engaging story.
Tom Wilkinson does a brilliant job as William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice, wrestling with the issues prevalent in 18th century Britain, primarily the fact that his adopted daughter and great-niece is of mixed race in a society that shuns such things, particularly when she is given such highborn status. This love for Dido is nicely counteracted by his continued deliberations over the Zong case, where the slave ship The Zong jettisoned its slave cargo because of low water supplies to preserve the lives of the crew. The question of whether this allows an insurance claim to be made for the slaves or whether human life is always priceless runs through the film, and causes much of the tension for Dido who also has to struggle to come to terms with her high place in society, often finding solace in her cousin Elizabeth, played brilliantly by Sarah Gadon, who became like a sister to her during their years at Kenwood House with the Earl. Her and Elizabeth’s interactions with those around them and potential suitors definitely make up the most interesting parts of the film, though Dido’s relationship with Wilkinson’s Earl is by far the most absorbing to see progress over time as he comes closer to his conclusion in the trial.
‘Belle’ manages to overcome its excessive attempts to inspire an emotional reaction and a wooden performance by Sam Reid as Dido’s love interest to be a truly engrossing tale that amuses and saddens, is thoughtful and handles its subject matter brilliantly. Definitely one of the better period pieces of recent years, something for which director Asante with only her sophomore effort must be congratulated, it plays off the true story nicely, never disrespectful to it and tweaking bits for narrative purposes well. It’s definitely a case of the whole being greater than its parts, and we find it easy to forgive those moments where it indulges a little too much and panders to our gooey side, and watch out for a sneery performance from Tom Felton who chews the scenery ravenously whenever he’s on screen. Nice to see you again, Draco old bean.
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