Dido Elizabeth Belle is a little-known historical figure from 18th century England: an illegitimate mixed-race girl whose widowed father was an Admiral in the Royal Navy. As recounted in Belle, when he goes off to sea he leaves her in the care of her great-aunt and uncle, who raise her as their own, alongside a cousin who becomes a sister to her. She grows up to be an intelligent, self-assured young woman, unaware that her color bars her from living a “normal” existence, despite the promise of a yearly income. The film chronicles her gradual awakening to the world around her—and a brewing court case (to be judged by her surrogate father) that will determine the fate of the slave trade in England.
So far, so good; this is rich material. The film is handsome and well-cast. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who made an impression on me in Tom Hanks’ Larry Crowne, is ideal in the title role and is supported by an top-drawer ensemble led by Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Sam Reid, Sarah Gadon, Penelope Wilton, Miranda Richardson, and Tom Felton.
It all sounds sure-fire, but as the film progresses its storytelling becomes increasingly schematic and pat, denying us the true satisfaction of watching a slice of history reenacted with modern flair. A love story involving an earnest young lawyer and Belle is contrived and unconvincing.
Undemanding fans of British costume drama may be entertained, as I was at first, but Belle is teeming with good intentions that don’t quite pay off.