Belle | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


A period romantic drama that incorporates mildly provocative issues of gender and race

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido

In late-18th-century Britain, mixed-race Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised in genteel wealth by her white father's family, headed by Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). But while she enjoys tremendous privilege, her coming-of-age is complicated by both her gender and her race.

Amma Asante's film Belle is an historical fiction, inspired by a painting of real people (Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth) and incorporating a significant legal case regarding slavery, presided over by Lord Mansfield.

As such, it's a swirl of larger issues — the legal and cultural limitations of gender and race, and the burgeoning abolition movement — intertwined with domestic melodrama (love and marriage). The film also works to draw parallels between the state of slaves and women, vis-à-vis their lack of agency: "We are but their property," bemoans Elizabeth. But marriage isn't enslavement, and it's a tougher sell when we only see rich people courting and none of slavery's visceral ugliness.

Belle can get a bit soapy: It has all the heaving bosoms in gorgeous dresses, overheard secrets and upper-class side-eye you'd expect from a quality period parlor drama. So it's entertaining in that respect, if a bit lifeless: Its heroes and villains are clear, as its outcome, and its predictable romantic travails tend to reduce the film's meatier issues to mere obstacles along the path of true love.

Comments (0)
Comments are closed.