Belle (2013)

A costume drama about slavery, race, love and social justice isn’t necessarily something you’d expect to be not only appropriately subtle but also enjoyable, moving and laced with humour. Belle is all those things, and a film which surprises ad enlightens.

Amma Asante is the British director of this film set in 18th century England. The title character is a young black girl, the daughter of a white British Navy Admiral adopted into the rich family of her uncle, the Lord Chief Justice of England. The bulk of the story takes place in Belle’s early adulthood, as she is becoming of aware of men and her uncle grappling with a final ruling on the case of a slave ship which threw its cargo of slaves overboard. His ruling will either contribute to the dismantling of slavery, a major industry, or act as a bulwark against the growing opposition to the trade.

It’s a wonderful film from a new director to whom I expect we’ll be paying much attention in the future. She coaxes some wonderfully nuanced performances from a stellar cast (Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Tom Wilkinson) and from little known Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle. The relationship between her and her adoptive sister is the one on which the film effectively hinges, and it’s beautifully portrayed where it could so easily have been the stuff of a hundred clichéd costume dramas. It delves into the politics of race, slavery and riches with a deft touch; a complex legal case is clearly explained without clunking passages of exposition, raw issues have justice done to them without ever being manipulative or worthy.

It’s an excellent, stimulating and entertaining under-the-radar sort of film which deserves a successful life on DVD and download and television; see it and absorb it.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

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