In addition to the countless films made from original scripts, the medium's long history demonstrates a close relationship with other arts. Hundreds of movies grow out of plays, short stories, novels, poems, even popular songs, but the origin of "Belle" may be unique —it began with a painting. The painting, an 18th-century portrait of two beautiful, elegantly dressed young women, one white, one black, led the screenwriter, Misan Sagay, to investigate the history of the painting and of the two women, orphaned cousins in the care of the Lord Chief Justice of England.
The story begins with Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) placing his illegitimate biracial daughter Belle (Lauren Julien-Box) in the household of his uncle the Chief Justice (Tom Wilkinson), the Earl of Mansfield. Lord Mansfield and his wife (Emily Watson) raise the young woman along with her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) as part of the family. The fact of her mixed ancestry and illegitimacy naturally conditions much of her life in the great house and in the society of lords, ladies, knights, earls, viscounts, and all the other tiresome titles of the awful aristocracy that ruled England.
Most of the film deals with the young womanhood of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her unusual position in the world of privilege and rank. Snooty visitors express shock at her acceptance in the family and the obvious affection of her cousin and great uncle. Beautiful and exotic, she attracts the attention of some eligible young men; as the heiress to a handsome fortune, she also appeals to that classic English type, the younger sons of great families who will not inherit wealth or property.
Aside from Dido's personal story, the question of race enters the movie through her great uncle's position as Lord Chief Justice. He must decide the legality of an insurance claim for a shipload of slaves cruelly drowned by the captain of the slave ship Zong. The case and his decision, according to the script, initiate the process of reform and abolition that ultimately leads to the outlawing of slavery in Great Britain.
Despite the unavoidable presence of the racial issue, "Belle" addresses problems of class as much as race. The painful punctiliousness of behaviors and attitudes suffocates much of the characters' simple humanity. The formal exactness of the dialogue, the scrupulous attention to particular acts, words, and gestures against the background of an oppressive propriety, turns the movie into a version of the novel of manners, rather like Jane Austen without the wit.
Despite her heritage and race, Dido behaves with the same aristocratic decorum as everybody else, speaking in the same careful sentences, invoking the same social rules, enjoying the same privileges as her family and acquaintances. Her love for an idealistic young lawyer, John Davinier (Sam Reid) shows her brave willingness to defy those rules and follow her heart.
Stuck somewhere between a chick flick and a costume drama, with even a touch of the English country house mystery, the picture relies heavily on the decorative aspects of its time. The men wear wigs, stockings, and knee breeches, the women dress in colorful gowns that push their breasts up as if they were selling fruit, and the establishing shots of the great house should please any Anglophile viewer of public television (you "Downton Abbey" fans out there know what I mean). The highly inhibited social life, with its excessively polite conversation, its dreadful snobbery, and entertainment consisting of after dinner piano recitals by the young ladies makes the 18th century seem remarkably boring.
Possibly in keeping with its time and place, "Belle" substitutes words for action in most of its important scenes, resulting in a sometimes tediously talky work. Its visual beauty, its stunning exteriors, and the quality of its cast compensate for some of its length and prolixity. The lovely Gugu Mbatha-Raw looks very like the now famous portrait and handles her part with precision and even some passion. As usual in English movies, the supporting cast, which includes Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson, performs with great competence and conviction, and the redoubtable Tom Wilkinson expresses a variety of emotions underneath that awful wig, and pretty much dominates every one of his scenes.