Written by Misan Sagay and directed by Amma Asante this film is lovely to look at, well filmed with excellent attention to detail in costumes and scenery. There are also some fine performances: Gugu Mbatha-Raw is lovely as the title character Belle (who is called Dido throughout the film); and I liked the earnestness of Sam Reid who was her eventual love interest, John Denver.
The tale, however, lacked substance; it scratched the surface of many of the issues. Based on a true story, the writer was constrained by the facts but the film concentrated on the society view of Belle’s position and the difficulties she encountered in everyday living because of her colour. The real interest of the story however, lies in how, as the niece of a prominent member of the judiciary, she was able to gain knowledge and exert pressure to change a ruling which affected the course of slavery in Britain.
There are many familiar faces in the cast. Penelope Wilton (well known for Downton Abbey) is Belle’s maiden aunt, Lady Mary, and Sarah Gorton plays Elizabeth, her cousin, brought up as sisters but not allowed to dine together because it would not be proper. Tom Wilkinson is perfectly cast as the Chief Justice, uncle to both girls and protector of the status quo, with Emily Watson as his wife. They do as well as the limited script allows.
Miranda Richardson beautifully portrays Lady Ashford, a scheming mother with two sons, and Tom Felton and James Norton do well as the sons. Felton is suitable odious as James, while Norton makes Oliver believable despite having little to work from.
Sam Reid gives depth to the story’s hero, John Denver, a young clergyman’s son and would-be lawyer. Reid and Mbatha-Raw work well together and it is a shame that dialogue-wise they were not given more meat.
Despite its script flaws, this is a beautiful film to watch and it is another look at the effect of slavery, without the horror being emphasised. The tale is worth telling – just don’t expect intellectual depth.
Reviewed by Fran Edwards
Rating out of 10: 7
Belle opens in cinemas 8 May 2014