Response Journal: Belle (2014)

The tragic mulatto gets her fairy tale.

Belle is an overly quixotic, occasionally pedantic, but engaging British costume-drama about marriage and bigotry in the 18th century. It recounts the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of an aristocratic Naval officer (Matthew Goode). As a child, she moves from Caribbean slums to an English estate to be reared by her blueblood relatives (Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson). As an adult, despite her exotic beauty and large inheritance, she remains something of an outsider in England’s matchmaking high-society. Painted in rather broad strokes, director Amma Assante’s movie exhibits the literary affectations of a BBC miniseries. Her cast—especially Mbatha-Raw—likewise play histrionic when more subdued emotions would seem more authentic. The heroine’s marital uncertainty parallels the incipient abolitionist movement, prompting harangues ad nauseam on England’s shifting moral standards. Pontificating as it is, Assante’s optimism resonates because of its unabashed sincerity—a refreshing sentiment in our cynical age. Eventually, in the second half as the dual narratives dovetail, Belle gains momentum and delivers on its promise of time-honored middlebrow melodrama.

Costarring Sarah Gadon and Tom Felton.  Production design by Simon Bowles.

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