At their most compulsively watchable and intrinsically engaging, historical dramas illuminate the past and the present, drawing telling parallels between key events and socio-cultural (and political) in both time periods while engaging audiences through narrative, characters, and themes. Directed by Amma Assante from a screenplay written by Misan Sagay, Belle doesn’t reach the lofty heights of the genre, but when it does come close, it’s due in no small part to Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s layered performance as the title character, Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of an African slave and an aristocratic English captain in the Royal Navy. Little, however, was (and is) known about Belle, allowing Assante and Sagay to fill in the historical blanks with Jane Austen-inspired romantic drama and a key case in English insurance law that helped sway public opinion against slavery and toward abolition.
We meet Belle not as an adult, however, but as a young girl (Lauren Julien-Box), her mother dead, living in poverty, saved when her father, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), almost magically appears to take her away. Their reunion proves short-lived, however. With the Royal Navy calling him back to sea, he leaves Belle with his uncle, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), the First Earl of Mansfield, and his aunt, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson), at their country estate to be raised with her cousin, Elizabeth (Cara Jenkins). Abandoned by her father and with no dowry or income of her own, Elizabeth has one advantage Belle doesn’t and can’t have: the color of her skin. The color of Belle’s skin probes little impediment to a deepening friendship between the two girls over the next decade. They grow up as near equals, though Lord Murray and his wife, ever the adherents to the rigid rules of aristocratic, disallow Belle from eating with company (she’s too high-born to eat with the servants, so she eats alone).
As young women of means and status in 18th-century England, Belle (Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) are marriage eligible, but each faces obstacles to permanent domesticity, Belle because of the color of her skin, Elizabeth because of her relative poverty. Lord Murray’s status, however, guarantees suitors of varying worthiness for his great nieces, including two brothers, James Ashford (Tom Felton), the first-born son and thus the heir to his family’s fortune and estate, and his younger brother, Oliver Ashford (James Norton), the heir to nothing except his name, rank, and social status. James and Elizabeth make a natural pair, while Oliver, both mindful of Belle’s inheritance and seemingly taken by her beauty, angles for her hand in marriage. An aspiring abolitionist barrister (attorney), John Davinier (Sam Reid), repeatedly crosses paths with Belle, offering her a glimpse of the outside world and, Jane Austen-style, a romantic partnerships as relative equals (as equal as 18th-century England where, as Elizabeth pointedly acknowledges, turning subtext into text, women aren’t just treated like property, they are property).
Assante and Sagay are nothing if not ambitious, interweaving Belle’s nascent self-awareness with the appeal of a decision involving an English slave ship, the Zong, and the deaths of 142 slaves by intentional drowning. The ship owners argued “absolute necessity,” the result of a water shortage and fear of mutiny. The insurers claimed fraud as a defense. The actual case was decided on relatively narrow grounds, but Assante and Sagay use the impending judicial decision as the center of the debate surrounding slavery and abolition, with Lord Murray, the Chief Justice of England’s highest appellate court, on one side and Davinier, his one-time legal apprentice, on the other. Davinier’s passionate arguments against slavery coincide, perhaps too neatly, with Belle’s growing self-awareness as a young woman with physical and emotional needs of her own. At times, Davinier’s impassioned arguments feel anachronistic (probably because they are).
Both storylines converge on the same day. In their attempt to give Lord Murray a recognizable character arc, one that informs his decision in the Zong case (contrary to his assertions of impartiality), Assante and Sagay take one too many liberties, giving Lord Murray an impassioned speech of his own that goes far afield from the limited ruling in the Zong case. Then again, given the scant historical record about Belle except public records, it’s a given that Assante and Sagay have taken dramatic liberties to better serve the story they wanted to tell and the themes they wanted to impart to the audience. Assante and Sagay keep the themes surface-level, mostly in service to the romantic triangle and Lord Murray’s impending ruling in the Zong case, leaving Mbatha-Raw, Wilkinson, Gadon, Watson, and the other performers to carry Belle during the heavier emotional scenes. On that level, Assante proves herself quite adept. And with picture-postcard imagery courtesy of cinematographer Ben Smithard, Belle is always easy on the eyes.