Costume drama Belle takes on race and class in 18th century England
But once they reach marriageable age, their differently disabled social statuses become hard to ignore. Both are beautiful and well-bred, yes. But quiet, intelligent Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is heiress to a fortune, one that might tempt suitors even as her skin color makes her very existence a sordid scandal for some. Meanwhile, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) is blonde, vivacious, and penniless, which makes her pretty well useless in this milieu where blue blood is prized, yet in reality held less valuable than cash money. Undesirable to their alleged peers, and barred by propriety from marrying "beneath" them, they seemingly cannot marry at all — and what other role is left them in this era, besides the unhappy spinster-housekeeper one Lady Murray endures? Among those dangling possible solutions — albeit sometimes treacherously — are two bachelor sons (James Norton, Harry Potter villain Tom Felton) of the icy Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson), and a more humbly born legal apprentice (Sam Reid) who hopes to sway Judge Mansfield toward the abolitionist cause.
Belle does indeed sometimes commit the sin of forcing post-Civil Rights morality and other very modern mindsets on characters who would hardly be so advanced in the late 1700s. But that seems forgivable in this context, given that a movie that fully internalized Dido's perceived racial inferiority would be too bleak to provide any of this one's Jane Austen-esque pleasures. (Besides, there is some admittedly sketchy evidence that the real Dido was educated and otherwise treated as an equal within her immediate family circle, not to mention unthinkingly obeyed by their servants.)
There's a fairy-tale appeal to the lovely, deft leads, a familiar satisfying dastardliness to their foes, and of course no end of scene-stealing from the support-cast veterans. Unlike a movie such as 1999's Mansfield Park or the awful Reese Witherspoon Vanity Fair (2004), the weightier external historical issues aren't clumsily shoehorned into existing texts. Belle gets to address both fancy-dress love stuff and the grotesque injustice of a "civilized" world built on slavery because, in this stranger-than-fiction instance, the two are more or less evenly relevant. Which makes this a guilt-free teacake of its type, one you can have and eat, too. *
BELLE opens Fri/9 in San Francisco.