After the Oscar-winning but utterly harrowing 12 Years A Slave, here’s a history lesson without brutality.
Belle has much more in common with Steven Knight’s Amazing Grace (2006) than Steve McQueen’s whip-heavy journey to Louisiana.
While Knight’s film detailed William Wilberforce’s attempts to end slavery through politics, the moral dilemmas of the trade are explored here in a more social sense.
Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) returns to England with a pretty but illegitimate, mixed-race daughter.
Before returning to sea, he leaves her with his aristocratic uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and unsure wife (Emily Watson).
Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) shares a parallel life with her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) – except her skin colour dictates what she can and cannot do.
The era’s mentality is then challenged by a ‘value-of-life’ court case involving ship owners throwing slaves overboard the Zong to try to claim compensation from insurers.
Actress Mbatha-Raw, the daughter of a white English woman and black South African father, is perfectly cast in every sense to explore Dido’s inner resolve.
Oliver Ashford (James Norton) is thought to be an ideal match for Elizabeth – but has designs on Dido instead – while idealistic lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid) is more likely to get to the roots of who she really is.
Though having the kind of pedestrian pace which often hits British costume dramas (Keira Knightley’s 2008 film The Duchess excepted), Belle is sumptuously filmed and feels relevant.
And, in delivering his verdict on the Zong court case, Wilkinson again proves what a towering screen actor he is.
The second feature from former Grange Hill actress Amma Asante, Belle ends with details of the 1779 painting which inspired the story.