Certainly an earnest attempt to combine Jane Austen sensibilities with something like "Amistad," the new film "Belle" strives for importance, but ends up bogged down in its ambition.
Based on a true story, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a young mulatto woman in the 18th century who was born out of wedlock to a white Royal Navy Admiral and her (now deceased) black mother. Doing what was right, her father (Matthew Goode) fetches her and brings her to live with his aristocratic family while he goes off on an expedition, never to return.
While he is away, she grows from a shy eight-year old to a full grown woman -- her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) forever by her side. But even though she part of an aristocracy, she is mulatto, which puts her in a strange position as she is still never allowed to fully partake in the life the rest of the household does. But when her father dies, she is left a fortune, and her worth surpasses the household she resides in. As the family sets about to marry off Elizabeth to a financially eligible suitor, Dido is left in the dust, as they don’t expect anyone to take an interest. Alas, someone does: One John Davinier (Sam Reid) who is the son of a Pastor and studying to be a lawyer.
Meanwhile, the Ashford Family headed by Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) sends their two sons James (Tom Felton, Draco of "Harry Potter" fame) and Oliver (James Norton) to fetch Elizabeth’s hand. But James is more interested in Dido and, because his status is worth more, her family (made up of Lady and Lord Mansfield played by Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson) is thrilled. But Dido loves John, which complicates these 18th century affairs of the heart.
During all of these mating / financial rituals, Lord Mansfield is the judge in the Zong ship trial, which was one of the most influential fraud cases in history that led to the prohibition of slavery. Not only is John involved in the trial, but also Dido begins to research the facts of the case and actually finds the loophole that changes its course.
While this all may sound dramatic and intriguing, for some reason the film never reaches any emotional highs or lows. While the acting and set design are commendable, the script by Misan Sagay is a bit too simplistic to give it any heft. The direction by Amma Asante is pretty to look at, but it all seems like a glossy B-movie melodrama reminiscent of the 90s version of "Moll Flanders." Here, the filmmakers seem to be striving to reach the "Downton Abbey" crowd, and oftentimes the film feels like a big-screen version of the popular show. Certainly, the two differ in time period, but both are mainly concerned with drawing room romance, status, and business. There are no set pieces here. No huge declarations. Just a simple story that meanders with scenes that seem to repeat themselves, and incidents that should have impact, but don’t.
In one gripping moment, James Ashford privately confronts Dido about her relationship with his brother. As actor Felton is adept at playing the bad guy, here he amps it up and physically assaults our heroine, causing both fright and eventually a catalyst for her forging her independence. The problem is that it is staged so discreetly that the scene loses any sense of shock; in fact, we’re never quite sure what’s happened. The scene, therefore, has no power.
Which is how the whole film ends up feeling. There’s an interesting story in there and when we see just how much of the story is true, it makes you wish the story gave you more reasons to care.