Review: ‘Belle’ quietly slips politics into the Jane Austen genre

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays an heiress of mixed race in 18th century London in the docudrama "Belle." Credit: Fox Searchlight
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays an heiress of mixed race in 18th century London in the docudrama “Belle.”
Credit: Fox Searchlight

Director: Amma Asante
Stars: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

Looked at the wrong way, “Belle” could be read as a devastating parody of costume dramas, not as a historical drama that subversively sneaks in an element alien to the genre. It certainly gets all the details right of Jane Austen cinema. Though it was shot on digital, it has the tasteful, warmly lit, locked-down shots that ogle uncomfortable clothing. People say things like, “Lord Mansfield would be most aggrieved,” and “Quite!” Will our heroine go with the shallow rich kid or the fastidious Mr. Darcy type whose manners at first drove her batty?

There’s one twist: Our heroine is Dido Elizabeth Belle (a winning Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a real-life heiress of mixed race who was installed by her father (Matthew Goode) into the tony family estate, run by his uncle, the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). Details on her life are scant, despite a new biography about to his shelves, but the film imagines her as being raised in a bubble and taught the proper life, even though she’s treated, even by her loved ones, like an exotic pet. Indeed, she’s not allowed to share the dinner table with guests, especially since they may blurt out things like, “I had no idea she was so black.”

Yet Dido’s skin color can’t allay the advances of the smirking scion (James Norton) of a full-on society racist (Miranda Richardson, reliably hammy). But she instead finds her heart melting over John Danvier (Sam Reid), a lowly but strapping priest’s son and fiery abolitionist who tussles with Mansfield over the Zong case, in which a ship drowned slaves in an attempt to collect insurance money. Danvier rocks her world, first with his rakish good looks and then by belatedly exposing her to the misery elsewhere in the world.

The frivolous life or progressive radicalism? Which side she’ll choose is as inevitable as whether the loving but stubborn Mansfield will cave to Danvier’s side. But that’s all part of the plan. Helmed by a black, female director (Amma Asante) and writer (Misan Sagay), it appropriates the language of frivolous costume dramas to sneak in passionate politics.

But it doesn’t simply add race to an otherwise whitewashed genre; it also stresses the feminism that goes into all female-driven costume dramas. Dido’s late father bequeathed her a fortune, meaning that unlike her relative and childhood friend Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), she doesn’t require a suitor to keep her moneyed. And yet the two women are still pitted against each other, for love is inextricably entwined with money and financial security. “Belle” never gets preachy, even if it’s never subtle about what it’s saying. In fact, its refusal to ditch the genre’s light trappings makes its growing politics even more daring. It just assumes that those into stammering courtship and tight corsets will be totally cool when things turn into a coolheaded “Amistad.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge.


Turkey: Voting begins in country's first direct presidential…

Some 53 million people are able to vote in the election, including 2.8 million citizens abroad. Until now, Turkish presidents were elected by parliament.


Libya seeks ceasefire as south Tripoli a militia…

By Patrick Markey and Aziz El YaakoubiTRIPOLI (Reuters) - Black plumes of smoke marked shell blasts and bulldozed earthen barricades mapped out the frontlines around…

Breaking: News

Russia mad about sanctions, says U.S. contributing to…

Russia reacted angrily on Saturday to additional sanctions imposed by the European Union over Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis, saying they would hamper cooperation…


Mutant worms stay sober, even on alcohol

U.S. researchers have developed "mutant worms" that do not get drunk by alcohol, a breakthrough that could lead to new treatment for people trying to quit drinking


Chris Martin dishes on 'conscious uncoupling' with Gwyneth…

"The thing we told everyone at the beginning of the year is true," says Chris Martin about Gwyneth Paltrow. "We are very close. We are not together."


'Game of Thrones' livens up Comic Con with…

By Piya Sinha-RoySAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Laughter and death did battle on Friday at HBO's "Game of Thrones" panel at Comic Con, one of the…


Review: Brett Ratner's big 'Hercules' movie is small…

The latest "Hercules," starring Dwayne Johnson as the half-god beefcake of Greek myth, strips its hero and tale of most of its fantastical elements.


Scientists recreate world's smallest Monet copy

Scientists have reproduced a famous Impressionist painting using nano-printing, to create what has been described as the world's smallest work of art. Reworked at the…


Kevin Love becomes third NBA player to pull…

Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves became the third NBA player to withdraw from consideration for Team USA in next month's World Cup, USA Basketball.

U.S. Soccer

Orlando City takes shot at NYCFC over Frank…

Orlando City reminded the world how big a signing Brazilian star Kaka earlier this month with a photo of Kaka mobbed by fans juxtaposed against Lampard.


Jeremy Lin says 'Linsanity' is over as he…

Jeremy Lin lit up the NBA two years ago with his play for the Knicks but he has no desire to recreate "Linsanity" in his new career with the Lakers.


2014 NFL Fantasy Football Top 100 overall player…

2014 NFL Fantasy Football Top 100 overall player rankings


Forget Wi-Fi: Li-Fi could be the future

Li-Fi technology – developed by Mexican company Sisoft – is wireless internet connectivity using specialized LED light.


Weather app Climendo might be the most accurate…

The wait for a truly accurate weather forecast could finally be over thanks to a nifty new app called Climendo.


Napkin Table puts focus off the phone and…

Michael Jan, a design student at Tunghai University in Taiwan, has invented a serviette-picnic blanket hybrid called the Napkin Table.


Essie's new Color Boutique

Essie launches high-tech kiosks at major airports and malls across the country.