Scott De Buitléir reviews this striking British film based on a true story
Director: Amma Asante
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson
Belle is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizebeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral. Raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson) Dido’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet the colour of her skin prevents her from fully participating in the traditions of her social standing. Left to wonder if she will ever find love, Dido falls for an idealistic young vicar’s son bent on change who, with her help, shapes Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England.
Although this film could fall victim to being viewed by only a niche audience, Belle may well be one of the best British films of 2014. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is absolutely superb in her role as Dido, and hers will hopefully become a name we see much more of in the future. Emily Watson plays her role with great strength also, as Dido’s mostly-supportive cousin. Tom Wilkinson is already a well accomplished and highly respected British actor, and lends himself perfectly to his role here, much like the vast majority of this production’s cast. Tom Felton, as the instantly-dislikeable James Mansfield, also plays his role to perfection.
Overall, this film is absolutely outstanding, despite a ‘Hollywood’ style ending which rarely sits well in British filmmaking. Period drama is something the British can do very well, but this insight into how race, class and women were all viewed by society at the time is fascinating, without being preachy. You will come out of this film with a decent glimpse of the past, an enlightened view of the world today and, possibly, a renewed belief in true love.
Belle opens June 13 in cinemas across Ireland.