***No plot spoilers***
This is an historical costume drama set in England, in the late 18th century. It was inspired by actual events, and concerns the lives of real people at the time. It deals with an unusual subject, the social acceptance of a mixed race young lady, and is set around the increasing outrage against the Slave Trade in contemporary England. To some extent, the film is worth watching for the cast list alone. It boasts a collection of some of the finest British actors who ever graced a screen, including Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton, Emily Watson, and James Norton. Few films in recent years have managed to assemble such a stellar collection, and the quality shines through the whole production. In the role of Belle, newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw provides not only the beauty and grace necessary to explain her attraction to others, but also a confident performance that holds the whole film together.
The story is about the illegitimate child of an English sea captain. (Goode) Finding her living in poverty on his return to Africa, he rescues her, and brings her back to the home of his uncle, (Wilkinson) leaving the child in his charge as he has to return to sea. This uncle is none other than the Chief Justice of England, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, a person of influence and high status. Belle’s colour and race causes some uproar in the house, but the kindly uncle and his wife (Emily Watson) pledge to raise Belle as a lady, with all the benefits that will endow.
With no plot spoilers, I cannot tell too much of the story. The slavery angle is played out as a back story, around a fraudulent insurance claim by the owners of a slave transport ship. This has resulted in a sensational case at the High Court, over which the Chief Justice must preside. Belle’s decorative life is overshadowed by the issues of her colour, and the attitude of society toward people of mixed race at that time. But her beauty still attracts admirers, though her strong personality and rebellious nature does cause her problems.
On the surface, this is like many period pieces that have gone before. The men wear wigs and tricorn hats, the ladies are clad in immaculate gowns that show heaving bosoms. People must be introduced formally before they will speak to each other, and the wealthy live in grand houses, with carriages and servants. The single girls are all seeking a ‘good marriage’, and the young men want a wife who is both pretty, and will bring some fortune to the match. Social interaction is stilted, and the class structure rigid. Something that also interested me, is that the family live in Hampstead, which is now part of North London. In 1786, it was considered to be ‘the countryside’, and other than the mansion of the Lord Chief Justice, is a decidedly rural area.
Everyone plays their parts just right. Even the smaller roles are notable, and the period detail is most authentic. The script is sharp and believable, and the music is appropriate too. But to be honest, I couldn’t get excited about this film. Despite the wonderful actors parading before me, the mannered style, though authentic, became wearing after a while, and I found myself waiting for some shock or climax that failed to appear. As an historical oddity, it is good enough. But you can wait for a TV showing, as I did.
Here’s a trailer.