Looking back on history, it’s sometimes easy to overlook how hideous and heinous our human history is when there was so much aesthetically pleasing that came from it. Thinking back now, it hard to stomach the idea that people were considered property because of the color of their skin, and women were considered second class citizens who only had a fraction of the rights men did. The difficulty that comes with portraying both parts of history is that often times substance is sacrificed for the sake of the scenery. Belle is no exception to this rule.
Belle follows the life of the illegitimate offspring of a Royal Navy Admiral and an black woman. His aristocratic background grant their child, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a place in high society, but her skin cover requires her to be treated like a secret, even at her home where she is raised by her great-uncle and aunt Lord (Tom Wilkinson) & Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson). Growing up with her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), she didn’t realize just how differently she was being raised compared to the outside world, but her blissful ignorance is shattered when she meets John Davinier (Sam Reid). Belle’s father is a lawman and Lord Chief Justice of England during a case that would change the future of slavery as they knew it. Belle must come to terms with every aspect of who she is while also dealing with a Pride and Prejudice type relationship she is developing with John.
Unfortunately, Belle‘s romantic story eclipses the racial and gender struggles that should be the face of this film. The political and social blaze it tries to raze get overwhelmingly smothered by this by-the-books (and I’m not just talking about Jane Austen novels) love story, which has the film constantly on the verge of feeling false. If it wasn’t for the electric chemistry between Mbatha-Raw and Reid you might begin to get upset with the overly romantic turn this film takes. Instead you’ll be more concerned with whether they succumb to their forbidden feelings than the results of the court case. The truly engaging moments are all thanks to the cast of British actors, who many of you may find familiar if you watch the same egregious amount of British television as I do.
The extravagance and beauty of this period piece shines through the film and is so engrossing that it even feels like it beautifies some of the ugly subject matter by never really presenting you with even one scene of the gruesome reality that was slavery. I’m not saying there has to be a gory, violent scene a la 12 Years a Slave, but there is a reason that films message resonated so deeply with audiences and that’s because they didn’t sugarcoat the material in order to every visually sweet. Showing a little polarity between the lives of slaves and the aristocracy would have been nice to get the social implications across, but as a love story this film manages to entertain and hold its own.
Belle lives up to its name with all the beautiful art, scenery and clothing that the time period is known for. For all its beauty, it fails to also capture the visceral, ugly nature that was slavery, making the social commentary secondary to the Austen-esque love story. Belle would be nothing without its beast of a performance from its very talented cast, tempering the overly sweet take on this sour case in history.
RATING: ★★★★★★(6/10 stars)
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