Directed by Amma Asante. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sam Reid, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, Matthew Goode. (2014, PG, 105 min.)

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 23, 2014

Any drama about a well-to-do young woman in the late 18th century almost certainly has to be about the problem of securing a suitable husband – how many other plots are available to female characters? – but Belle adds an intriguing dimension to the marriage plot, enriching the usual complications of class, finance, and romance with the issue of racial equality.

Inspired by a 1779 painting of two real-life cousins – one black, one white – Belle presents a fictionalized account of the coming-of-age and courtship of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of a British naval officer and a former slave. At a young age, Belle is brought to England to be raised by her uncle, Lord Mansfield (Wilkinson), who treats her with love but also strict attention to “the rules” – that is, a balance between the privileges of Belle’s birthright and the perceived burden of her skin color in a country plumped up by slave-trade profits. Another wrinkle: All of England is awaiting the ruling of Mansfield – Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench – on the Zong appeal, an insurance claim case filed by a slave ship; his verdict will almost certainly have larger implications for the future of slavery in England.

The material is interesting, and the production values are top-notch. Anushia Nieradzik deserves special notice for her costume design; her luxurious dresses in deep shades of purple and magenta race the pulse more than anything particular in the plot or characterization. It’s all quite well done, if only a touch too decorous.

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