Like superhero and horror movies the romantic period drama has certain tropes filmmakers are reluctant/unwilling to break: ignoring any story not involving gentry, a free-thinking proto-feminist causes fans to flutter with her determination not to be defined by her proposed union with a man, and there are usually two love interests – a gentleman who turns out to be a bounder, and a bounder who turns out to be a gentleman. While Belle doesn’t break from these cliches it does take the opportunity to bend them slightly.
nspired by a true story, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate orphan living with her uncle Tom Wilkinson, a judge embroiled in a slave ship insurance case, and aunt Emily Watson. The independent Dido comes up against the inherent racism and sexism of the 18th century and her position as 'mulato' is not conducive to marriage proposals. A spinster's life is the best she can hope for until kindly gentleman James Norton, whose brother (Tom Felton) is also wooing Dido's cousin (Gadon), comes calling, both romances orchestrated by their title-grabbing mother (Miranda Richardson). However, spikey law student Sam Reid, who battles Wilkinson with his progressive thoughts re the slave case and the rights of all human beings regardless of colour, piques Dido’s interest...
o on the surface it looks like there’s not much of a shift away from your typical Jane Austen, but Belle puts as much thought and effort into the issue of the slave trade, previously explored in Michael Apted’s Saving Grace, as much as the will they/won't they romance. With a position somewhere between the servants and her family, Dido has to deal with an added layer that an Austen character doesn't, and the nascent romance hits the rocks not because of misunderstandings and rumours, but of innate racism. Although liberal-minded, Reid's Davinier is a clergyman's son, so when he talks to Dido like an equal, which her family don’t, she reminds him that they are not equal – she's a lady. It's an odd dynamic and a fresh one for the period drama.
n her first leading role Gugu Mbatha-Raw turns in a solid performance, Richardson is a dab hand at the overpowering matriarch, and Tom Felton (better known as Draco Malfoy) has the slimy thing down pat, but when Tom Wilkinson is on screen he's all you can see.
hile a little familiar, Belle remains engaging throughout.