If Belle weren’t such an astute piece of social commentary on racism, it would feel largely conventional and polite for a period picture. The story follows an illegitimate mixed race daughter born into aristocracy in late 18th-century London named Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She is often reminded of her skin color and inability to dine with guests in her estate due to public perception of darker-skinned individuals, as some politely put it. Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) acts as a father figure who controls the judicial system in London, having the ability to make a statement on slavery and change the way the public perceives blacks as inferior. Dido is courted by many men but most see the color of her skin, except for one man: John Davinier (Sam Reid), a man who strives for greatness but doesn’t have the social standing to do anything. The performances make the film, with Mbatha-Raw bringing a tenderness and compassion to the character while Wilkinson and Gadon, who plays a sister of sorts to Dido, are remarkable. The story’s too safe to make a larger statement, but it’s rare to see a black main character in such a uniquely placed position of power and struggle. Belle is messy, but it’s effectively unique in its point-of-view.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)