If an image can tell a thousand words, then the painting featured at the end of the period piece Belle could fill a library. And while its story of 18th Century English slavery and social convention looks amazing, it's too self-congratulatory and lacks the emotion of a real winner.
Inspired by the true story, Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is an illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), who is raised by Lindsey's great aunt and uncle (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) after Lindsay dies at sea. Belle's half-cousin and confidant Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) instantly bond, yet Belle's status doesn't afford her the same standards. While Elizabeth chases suitors for a dowry, Belle remains isolated and the victim of the rigid social patterns of 18th Century England. Soon, tradition collides with progress as Lord Mansfield must rule on a critical lawsuit involving murdered slaves, giving Belle and her newfound love John Davinier (Sam Reid) the chance to obliterate hundreds of years of slavery in one legal swoop.
Davinier and fellow suitor Oliver Ashford (James Norton) are fairly standard characters, as are Oliver's mother (Miranda Richardson) and brother (the Harry Potter retread Tom Felton), who play the 18th Century race card like they have a stack in their pockets. The Ashfords are people we're supposed to hate, but they never achieve a level suitable for us to care. Their dismissal at the end of the second act - and Davinier's near-constant prattling about slavery - loses its effectiveness around the same time. We get it: slavery was wrong and the people who committed it were bad people. Rather than ram this down our throats every 5 minutes, Belle should have focused on the story between her and Mansfield, whose conversations represent the best part of the film.
Belle is rated PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images and has a runtime of 104 minutes.
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