"Belle" opens in 1769, as Captain John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) of the Royal Navy locates his biracial illegitimate daughter "Belle" and rescues her from slavery. Lindsay installs the girl with his great-uncle William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson). Though immediately scandalized, they take in the girl — full name Dido Elizabeth Belle — and before long, she's part of the family, albeit a part of the family not allowed to take dinner with them.
Once full grown, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) begs the question of a husband, an awkward situation for a "mulatto" girl raised by high-society whites. Matters are less complicated for Dido's sisterly cousin — and bosom companion since childhood — Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Screenwriter Misan Sagay takes creative license to create, pretty much from whole cloth, an Austen-esque romantic drama from this situation, in which money is an issue (the cinematic Dido winds up a well-off heiress to her father's fortune, whereas Elizabeth has no such dowry on offer) but race even more so.
Dido has two options, one perfectly adequate (James Norton) if more or less transparently interested in Dido's exoticism and dowry rather than her soul, and a dashing downlow suitor that oozes passion for both her and social justice: vicar's son and aspiring lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid). Clearly, Davinier is the man for her, as evinced by his abolitionist advocacy. Unfortunately, this sets him at odds with Lord Mansfield, who, as Lord Chief Justice, is considering a slave trade case with the potential to disrupt "the finances that hold up England."
The powerful social forces at play — from propriety to slavery — give the story some heft. Director Amma Asante wrangles crisp period imagery, and in its broad strokes, "Belle" captures the intrigue of the real Dido, subject of a famously captivating portrait that is more fascinating and extraordinary than the film around it. Raw makes Dido charismatic without being unduly confident or modern, and the subtleties of Wilkinson's performance go a long way to selling a script that consistently favors blunt statement over subtext (kudos too to an underused Watson and Miranda Richardson as the crafty mother of Belle's first suitor).
"Belle"'s triumphant racial enlightenment has clearly been rigged for maximum dramatic impact and uplift (the real Davinier, by the by, was a gentleman's steward, not the upwardly mobile intellectual of the film). Older viewers may be unconvinced by the imposed narrative formulas, but with its PG rating (and a dastardly supporting role for Tom "Draco Malfoy" Felton), "Belle" makes a fine opening to engage kids in some race-based social and legal history.
Rated PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images. One hour, 44 minutes.
— Peter Canavese