The romantic encounters in this effortless costume drama from director Amma Asante (A Way Of Life) are bland fare. Instead, Belle’s real meat comes from its heady political backdrop.

The Zong, a fraud case that centres on the insurance value of a murdered slave cargo, is about to be presided over by Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). The fate of Britain’s slave trade lies in his hands. Yet, behind the scenes at his palatial family home, Mansfield raises the daughter of a slave, Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The equal of her white cousin in private, Dido is publicly trapped between the realms of upstairs and downstairs. Deemed unsuitable for marriage, Belle’s unique situation cuts through swathes of societal codes.

© 2013 – Fox Searchlight Pictures

© 2013 – Fox Searchlight Pictures

Based on a true story, Belle steers clear of visceral 12 Years A Slave territory, instead concerning itself with a Jane Austen-like examination of manners and society, frequently distracting us from its politics with an array of unworthy suitors as Belle and her cousin negotiate the perils of ‘coming out’. It’s in these scenes of romantic entanglement where Belle feels weakest, veering close to melodrama, falling short of the sharp, acerbic wit we’ve come to expect from the likes of Austen and with a dearth of compelling male characters.

Tom Felton steps in as the predictably villainous suitor James Ashford. It’s perfect casting but the characterisation feels too familiar to make any waves in this densely packed narrative. The film’s most complex male contender, Oliver Ashford – played with fascinating ambiguity by Death Comes To Pemberley actor James Norton – would no doubt be appalled by his own flaws if, indeed, he could recognise them. Instead his ardour for Belle masks deep seated prejudice about her roots – something that seeps out in cutting insults, intended as compliments, in a less endearing version of Mr Darcy.

This light treatment of Belle’s romantic threads is a deliberate move that makes its heavyweight themes much more accessible. Yes, there are ideas that feel too light – namely a developing friendship between Dido and a servant – but on the whole Asante weaves in political depth with such finesse that Belle will likely leave you wanting more Zong and fewer scenes of romantic declaration.

That said, splicing together eighteenth century marital conventions with the slave trade is a genius idea that provides many parallels. As a free mixed-race woman, Dido’s position in society is tangled and thorny yet, with independent means, she remains more fortunately placed than her cousin, whose intrinsic dependency means she must willingly sell herself on the marriage market to secure a stable future. And if that wasn’t enough, Asante throws in a spinster, Lady Mary (Penelope Wilton), to serve as a reminder that even with an independent fortune a woman amounts to very little without an entitled man to represent her.

© 2013 – Fox Searchlight Pictures

© 2013 – Fox Searchlight Pictures

Of independent means and with an increasingly candid tongue Dido channels more Jane Eyre than Jane Austen, a quality that makes her both more appealing and resonant than her counterparts. As Dido becomes inspired by the forward thinking, moralistic campaigner John Davinier (Sam Reid) her vehement outspokenness elevates her from feeble heroine to admirable feminist. It’s an endearing performance from Mbatha-Raw that, despite being a little over reliant on swelling, watery eyes, strikes an emotional chord in a scattering of fiery verbal exchanges.

With as much emphasis on feminism as the slave trade, Belle is a thinking, finely balanced costume drama. The bumpy love story, with predictable suitors in tow is easy to forgive in light of Belle’s meatier story-lines and a stellar performance from Tom Wilkinson.

VERDICT: ✭✭✭ 3/5


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