Belle is pretty much a perfect movie. Historical love stories are one of the best “red wine and chocolate on the couch” genres. I’ve already told you guys how I feel about The End of the Affair, and The English Patient never stops being wonderful. And while the best love stories are always tragic (see Brokeback Mountain), the characters tend to be self-centered sad people. In Belle, the characters have a lot more to deal with than their feelings. The title character (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is not a Jane Austen protagonist. She has the independent mind, fierce intelligence and familial loyalty of Elizabeth Bennett, but Dido Belle was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic father and his mistress, a slave. The woman did not have an easy life.
We never get to learn more about Belle’s mother, who dies before the movie begins. We briefly meet her father, played by my all time favourite Matthew Goode, and he is a good, loving man who insists that his daughter be raised with the genteel comforts that are due to her. Belle’s father must leave to return to the “King’s service” at sea, because this is an old-timey story. Belle grows up in the house of her great-uncle, William Murray, (Tom Wilkinson) an earl and basically the most powerful judge in England at the time. While Belle is treated nearly the same as her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), she is increasingly faced with the sad knowledge that her race has made her an alien and a pariah in the only society she has ever known. When guests come for dinner, she can’t eat with them. She has to wait in the parlour and see them after dinner, while they openly gawk and snit about her being there.
Some people have criticized the movie, comparing it to Twelve Years a Slave and finding that it skirts the real savagery of slavery. But the film also follows William Murray as he is deciding the Zong case, involving the murder of slaves as an amazingly awful way to commit insurance fraud. Belle learns about this case from the conveniently very attractive and morally enlightened John Davinier (Sam Reid). She is, understandably, horrified.
What follows is a wonderful mix of Philadelphia and Amistad style justice drama and smoking-hot corseted Sense and Sensibility love drama. I know it seems like a love story can undermine historical horrors, but it doesn’t. It can work. That’s how the ancient Greeks would deliberately try to civilize society with their dramas—you make a story emotionally resonate, and the history lesson will get through. And even though the magical good-feels of the movie aren’t quite as great as how the true story probably played out, it’s true that they still point to the Zong decision as a seminal case leading towards the abolition of slavery in England.
Finally, the best ingredient of the movie is the fantastic cast. Everyone is so perfect, but the chemistry between Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid is one billion times better than The Notebook. ★★★★