This biopic examines race, gender and class in 18th century England, but it's also a sumptuous love story
After years of gaining bloat through tepid, on-the-nose efforts like “Austenland” and “The Jane Austen Book Club,” the Austen-esque genre finally gains a new chapter worthy of its namesake in Amma Asante's romantic drama “Belle,” a lustrous if faintly dented gem.
Based on the life and accomplishments of an actual 18th-century noblewoman, this warmly poignant tale of two illegitimate sisters’ efforts to marry despite their social handicaps (one is dowry-less, the other half-black) offers all the passionate idealism, the precise social insights, and the delightfully sharp-tongued dialogue that recall the best of “Sense and Sensibility.”
As many of Austen's heroines discover, courtship often ends in disillusionment, even bitter cynicism. After a quick prelude that establishes how Dido (played as an adult by South African actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was plucked from the slums by her navy-captain father (Matthew Goode) as a child and ensconced in the care of her great uncle Lord Mansfield and his wife (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), “Belle” intertwines its protagonist's troubled search for a worthy husband with a tremendously moving coming-of-age story about growing up rarer than a unicorn and attempting to gain equilibrium while her ever-changing social status shifts like sand under her feet.
Though she's educated in lady-dom, given French and piano lessons alongside her de facto (white) sister Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), Dido is forbidden to dine with her family, especially when company comes to call. Buoyed in her marriage prospects by a generous inheritance after her father's premature death, Dido resolves to defy her guardians, whose well-meaning protectiveness imprisons her in a gilded cage, by wedding an equal.
Dido, alas, is literally peerless, a circumstance that exacerbates the inevitable racism she confronts from her would-be suitors and their families. Despite its familiarity from any number of films, a brief scene in which the radiant maiden sits in front of the mirror and claws at her face and chest is absolutely shattering. Sadder yet is her hesitance to sit for a family portrait; despite her great uncle's adoration, she's terrified, for good reason, that she'll be portrayed as Elizabeth's inferior.
“Belle's” extraordinary intelligence is most evident in its slow but satisfying disentanglement of the jumble of privileges and disadvantages that the wealthy, aristocratic, and learned — but also female, half-black, and pitifully sheltered — Dido embodies. Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay's ideas are dense enough to fill a textbook on the intersectionalities between race, sex, and class, and yet their primary aim isn't to instruct, but rather to tug, most expertly, on the heartstrings.
In a trope dating back to “Pride and Prejudice,” Dido is romanced by two very different men: Oliver Ashford (James Norton), an affable but penniless aristo, and John Davinier (Sam Reid), an ardent abolitionist and a vicar's son. John reveals to Dido that her great uncle will preside over a slavery-related lawsuit, a potentially landmark case that will rapidly accelerate or stop dead in its tracks the cause of eradicating bondage in Britain. Irritated by Dido's questions about the lawsuit, Lord Mansfield bans John from his London and country homes, and thus from seeing her.
It's never in doubt who Dido will choose as her husband, of course, but Dido and John's secret relationship, fueled by political fervor and mutual attraction, accrues an exciting, heroic thrill. The deep-throated, pleasingly uptight Reid is a period dreamboat, giving Colin Firth‘s Mr. Darcy a run for his money, and his fiery monologues arguing for the equality of all of God's creatures make up for Mbatha-Raw's intermittent blankness. “Belle” is the rare film that produces tears of joy, so substantial and hard-earned are its individual triumphs.
Occasionally, though, the script leans too hard on its social analyses. The character of Elizabeth, for example, seems to go through several personalities, sometimes playing the clueless, infatuated blond whose ironic destiny is to envy her dark sister, while at other times channeling the future spirit of Susan B. Anthony. “We are but [men's] property,” she sighs to Dido, and you wonder when she had the time to pick up Mary Wollstonecraft's “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” between daydreaming about her wedding dress and brushing her hair for the tenth time that day.
That's a forgivable flaw in an otherwise luminously smart and beautiful film that's as sumptuous in its material textures — of stone, pearl, velvet, and marble — as it is in its cerebral pleasures and ocean-deep emotions. Dido is singular; “Belle” is exceptional.