Written by Misan Sagay
Directed by Amma Asante
Ah, period piece films. It’s kind of a silly term if you think about it, since any historical time ever is technically a period, the film itself being the artistic piece of the equation. These films don’t really constitute a genre on their own, and they’re most commonly referring to something in the far past, though certainly not exclusively. Some people hear of a film referred to as a “period piece,” and the first things that come to mind are nobility and dogmatic rulers, oppressed women, and way-paving. There’s something unmistakably appealing about all those costumes and customs. For fans of these films, of which there countless, the story often provides a glimpse into a bygone era that undoubtedly informs their own. Amma Asante’s Belle, a new entrant in the genre, strikes all the right notes.
Set in the mid 18th Century, Belle is, you guessed it, based on a true story, and an awfully compelling one at that. Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate child of a Caribbean slave and a British admiral (Matthew Goode). After her mother dies, Belle is rescued by her father and taken back to his aristocratic family to be raised with privilege, by the family patriarch Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), his wife (Emily Watson), Elizabeth, their niece (Sarah Gadon), and the spunky aunt (Penelope Wilton). This is all within the first 10 minutes, so after the obligatory “But she’s black!” comments, you pretty much know how things are going to follow suit.
Being formulaic isn’t always a bad thing, though, especially if you’re aiming to attract an audience that would like a period piece. Belle’s position within the family is an awkward one, especially for Lord Mansfield, a high-ranking judge deciding a timely case about slavery. The family loves her, and Belle forms a sisterly connection with Elizabeth. An inheritance from her father makes Belle a wealthy young woman, even though her race makes her an unattractive prospect for men from “respectable” families. A predictable love story follows suit, with Belle becoming engaged to an acceptable man while pining for her true love, a man at odds with Lord Mansfield. The nicely dovetailing personal and political stories lead to the somewhat logical conclusion of Belle happily engaged to the right man who, as it were, fights the good fight against slavery; all this aside, the film isn’t as trite as it may sound. The supporting cast delivers expectedly great performances, particularly Wilton, the saucy bon-mot spewing Aunt, obviously recalling her Downton Abbey character.
What’s lacking in the way of surprises is compensated for in a story that’s both inspiring and entertaining to watch. The content is clearly historical, but the takeaways are powerful enough for the story to resonate. Recently acquired by Fox Searchlight, Belle might be a sleeper hit when it’s released. If the excited applause throughout and after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival is any indication, this one might find an audience.
– John Oursler
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.