In 'Belle,' A Complex Life Tangled In Class And Commerce

May 2, 2014
Originally published on May 3, 2014 11:17 am

Here's a unique specialty for a movie studio: slavery films. Last year, Fox Searchlight brought us an Oscar winner about a free black man hauled into 12 years of slavery. Now, in Amma Asante's Belle, the company is releasing what's essentially the reverse of that story — a similarly torn-from-life (though significantly less wrenching) tale of a slave girl who had the great good fortune to be raised as a British aristocrat.

Belle's mother is an African woman enslaved on a Caribbean island; her father (Matthew Goode) is an admiral unaware he's fathered a child until her mother's death in 1769. But he's quick to acknowledge his responsibility to his now-6-year-old daughter, by doing something that many of that era would not have: He takes her to England to be raised by his family.

Unsurprisingly, his relatives are shocked at this turn of events. But his uncle (Tom Wilkinson) is Earl of Mansfield and England's Lord Chief justice, one of the country's most senior judges, and he's confident that society's rules will make sense of their unusual family situation.

Belle (played as an adult by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) grows up every bit as sheltered and pampered as her blond cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), but constrained by a few extra rules. She can't dine with the family, for instance, or with the servants. She is allowed to mingle with guests away from the dinner table, though that's generally awkward as she's invariably treated as an exotic.

Belle is subjected to all sorts of indignities, especially when she comes of marriageable age, but she remains genteel, if increasingly assertive, as other tensions lurk. She's being kept in the dark, for instance, about Lord Mansfield's latest court case: a slave ship massacre where the crew threw more than 100 sickly Africans overboard, then made an insurance claim for "damaged cargo."

The courtroom arguments give the film much of its heft, but director Amma Asante is intent on making other points — about how class inflects attitudes, how commerce affects morality, and about how women are little more than property in 18th century society, good for joining bloodlines when fortunes are endangered, but not for much else. Belle is required to hold her tongue, even as all these forces complicate her situation again and again.

While the basic outline of Belle's story is real, the filmmakers have invented freely within that outline, and most of what they've invented has the themes and tone of vintage Jane Austen — dowries, deceptions, suitors only some of whom are suitable. This has the effect of making the film feel elegant but a little weightless despite the weighty matters at its center.

Still, it's smartly acted, handsome and well-crafted in a way that'll make it irresistible to the Merchant-Ivory/Masterpiece Theater set — think pride, with a whole lot of prejudice.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Fox Searchlight had an incredible success with "12 Years a Slave." The film about a free black man hauled into slavery, won this year's Best Picture Oscar. Well, now the studio is bringing out what our critic Bob Mondello says the reverse of that story. It's a film called "Belle."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Belle's mother was a slave on a Caribbean island, her father, a British admiral unaware that he even had a child until her mother's death in 1769. But he was quick to acknowledge that he had a responsibility to his now 6-year-old daughter, and to do something that many of that era would not have: Take her to England so that while he's at sea, she can be raised by his family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BELLE")

MONDELLO: His wealthy, influential family - somewhat to their shock.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BELLE")

MONDELLO: Uncle's position is that of lord chief justice, one of England's most senior judges. But for that very reason, Lord Mansfield is confident, more than his wife is that society's rules will make sense of their unusual family situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BELLE")

MONDELLO: Dido, as Belle will be known by the family, will grow up just as sheltered and pampered as her blond cousin, Elizabeth, but with a few extra rules. She can't dine with the family, for instance, though she can meet guests away from the dinner table - a tad awkwardly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BELLE")

MONDELLO: Belle, who's played as an adult by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is genteel but increasingly assertive as she's subjected to all sorts of indignities, especially when she comes of marriageable age. She's also kept in the dark about a court case Lord Mansfield is grappling with: a slave ship massacre where the crew threw more than 100 sickly Africans overboard, then made an insurance claim for damaged cargo.

The courtroom arguments give the film much of its heft. But director Amma Asante is intent on making other points about class and commerce, and how women were treated as property in 18th century society; good for joining bloodlines when fortunes are endangered, but not for much else. Belle is required to hold her tongue, though all of this certainly complicates her situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BELLE")

MONDELLO: Though the basic outline of Belle's story are real, including that court case, the filmmakers have invented freely within that outlines, and most of what they've invented feels like vintage Jane Austen: dowries, deceptions, suitors only some of whom are suitable. That has the effect of making the film feel elegant but a little weightless despite the weighty matters at its center.

Still, it's smartly acted, handsome and well-crafted in a way that'll make it irresistible to many viewers - pride with a whole lot of prejudice.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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