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Belle

Belle: Toronto Review

9:18 PM PDT 9/12/2013 by John DeFore

The Bottom Line

Period piece is a handsome if uneasy blend of history and courtship drama.

Venue

Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)

Opens

May 2, 2014 (Fox Searchlight)

Cast

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Tom Felton, James Norton, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson

Director

Amma Asante

The true story of a mixed-race child raised by British aristocrats is lightly fictionalized by Amma Asante.

TORONTO – Hoping to use some Jane Austen-style courtship anxiety to lend drama to an episode in 18th century English history that is novel enough on its own, Amma Asante's Belle centers on Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race child who was sent to be raised by the second-highest judge in England's courts. Though the inventions of Misan Sagay's script emphasize concerns over dowries and social rank that will be grating for many contemporary viewers, extracting little of the humor that Austen regularly found in such hang-ups, the picture's sour notes are balanced by fine performances and clear historical appeal. Moviegoers should respond well, if not overwhelmingly, when Fox Searchlight brings it to theaters next spring.

Fathered by a Royal Navy admiral who in real life seems to have left a few illegitimate offspring behind, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was rescued from poverty when her mother died, then left with her father's great-uncle, the First Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) when he went back to sea. The Earl and his wife (Emily Watson) raised her alongside another castaway child, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). They're depicted as parents who are loving but bound by certain conventions: Whether because she is black or illegitimate, Dido is not allowed to dine with the family when guests are being entertained; only after dinner may she mingle.

On the other hand, Dido has an advantage over her adoptive sister who is her only friend through childhood: When her father dies, he leaves her an income that Elizabeth (who is not the Earl's heir) will never have. "With such a dowry you can marry into any good family!" she is told. But the main family who shows interest is hardly good.

A pair of brothers who are themselves saddled with a lopsided inheritance begin courting the sisters. James Ashford (Tom Felton), who fancies Elizabeth, is a racist snob; his brother Oliver (James Norton) is spellbound by Dido's beauty, but even he lets slip that he considers her mother's race something to be "overlooked" in favor of honoring her "better half." Their mother, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson), is a shameless social climber the Mansfield household should be ashamed to entertain. 

Better suited to Dido is John Davinier (Sam Reid), a bright and politically minded idealist who hopes to become an apprentice to the great judge. The movie first offers some flimsy antagonism between the two, a transparent rom-com convention that cheapens the real historical topic it later uses to bring them together: Davinier is obsessed with the matter of the Zong slave-trading ship, where more than a hundred slaves were drowned intentionally by owners who then filed an insurance claim on their lives.

The case opens Dido's eyes to a world beyond her estate's drawing room, and she begins sneaking off for meetings with Davinier -- who is considered both an unwelcome troublemaker and a man whose low social standing (why, he's the son of a clergyman!) makes him unsuitable for marriage.

While the younger actors give performances more or less in keeping with a rather unsubtle script, Wilkinson has a good deal more ground to cover. Filling many roles at once, he must be compassionate with his daughter while sternly shepherding her through society; he must exercise his best legal judgment -- he's the sole arbiter of the Zong insurance claim's legality -- while knowing that any anti-slavery sentiment he expresses may be seen as partiality to his half-black daughter. Though the film's romance needs to employ the Earl as a heavy on occasion, Wilkinson and history make him the most interesting thing onscreen.

Production: DJ Films Ltd.
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Tom Felton, James Norton, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson
Director: Amma Asante
Screenwriter: Misan Sagay
Producer: Damian Jones
Executive producers: Steve Christian, Julie Goldstein, Steve Norris, Ivan Dunleavy, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Christopher Collins
Director of photography: Ben Smithard
Production designer: Simon Bowles
Costume designer: Anushia Nieradzik   
Editors: Pia Di Ciaula, Victoria Boydell

Music: Rachel Portman

PG-13, 103 minutes