Sometimes you find yourself wishing for an alternative version of the film unfolding before your eyes. ‘Belle’ is a good-looking and exceedingly polite film where perhaps a more complex one with less good manners would have been better. It’s the story of a mixed-race girl, Dido Belle (played first by Lauren Julien-Box, then Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who was brought up by an aristocratic family in Hampstead’s Kenwood House in the late 1700s. Dido was the daughter of a high-born naval officer and a black woman about whom very little is known.
Most of ‘Belle’ plays out in drawing rooms and manicured gardens. The film is dominated by two questions. Will Belle be able to marry the man she loves, the son of a clergyman (Sam Reid)? And which way will her great uncle, the nation’s top judge Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), rule in a case that will have implications for whether slaves are considered as cargo or human beings? Asante conflates these two strands into a simplistic, love-conquers-all plotline. It’s creaky but effective.
You can’t ignore what’s missing. The relationship that bore Dido is barely imagined or explored here. Nor does ‘Belle’ deal with the inequity of race relations with anything like the unblinking gaze of ‘12 Years a Slave’. There are raw, uncomfortable moments, helped by a strong performance of fragile resolve from Mbatha-Raw, but they are few.
Instead, director Amma Asante (‘A Way of Life’) takes a genteel, even breezy approach, as if wooing – certainly not wanting to offend – the ‘Downton Abbey’ brigade. To Dido’s story, Asante applies the same dance surrounding status, wealth, power and marriage that you’d expect from a Jane Austen adaptation. And perhaps that itself lends this unexceptional but watchable spin on an exceptional life the merest whiff of subversion.