Belle, film review: Amma Asante's spirited film is a different class of costume drama

(12A) Dir. Amma Asante; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, 104mins
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The Independent Culture

Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was the illegitimate daughter of a British naval officer and an African slave, who was raised in Kenwood House in London by her great uncle, the Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson).

And according to this costume drama, she came of age, both politically and as a society heiress, at precisely the moment that her great-uncle was presiding over the historic legal proceedings arising from the 1781 Zong massacre, in which a British slave ship jettisoned its cargo of 141 enslaved Africans.

Belle, then, elides two kinds of subjugation which were legally enshrined in the 18th century: marriage and slavery. Its detailing of the constraints that considerations of wealth and social status placed on whom a woman might marry is as elegant as in any Jane Austen adaptation, while the nascent abolitionist movement is represented by the lowly vicar's son and passionate firebrand (Sam Reid) with whom Belle falls in love.

And by dint of the colour of her skin and the unusual accident of her birth, Belle is a figure who lives both within and on the outside of high society; a woman with more freedoms than most, having to learn how to make use of them. She is played with sensitivity and exuberance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, making for a spirited, good-natured and crowd-pleasing costume drama.

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