An obscure historical footnote, short on facts but rich in significance, struggles to emerge from the décor, costumes, architecture, and landscapes of director Amma Asante’s suffocatingly tasteful period picture. “Belle” has the pace and sumptuous cinematography of a Merchant and Ivory production, but none of their memorable characters, subtle performances, or literate dialogue.
To its credit, “Belle” does feature the topical theme of racial equality. Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the illegitimate daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), who rescues her from penury, avowing his love in a sob-choked voice. Then he dumps her off at the estate of his father, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), Lord Chief Justice of the Empire, a place that makes Versailles look shabby by comparison, and disappears forever.
Lord Mansfield grudgingly takes in Dido, as she’s called, hides her when guests arrive, but grows to love her as his own “blood.” And Dido becomes the BFF of her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), and through the magic of a match cut the two moppets turn into beautiful, giggling young women, inseparable companions except for the awkward matter of color.
Two complications disturb this idyllic scenario. First is the notorious Zong case, in which the captain of that slave ship dumped overboard scores of diseased Africans because he hoped to collect more from the insurance companies for lost cargo than he could at the slave market for damaged goods. As Chief Justice, Mansfield must make the final ruling, and this is one of the few cases in which you root for the insurance company. If it wins, a blow will be struck for abolitionism — but will Mansfield be seen as influenced by his “mulatto” granddaughter?
The other twist involves dowries. Dido is left a fortune when her father dies, but Elizabeth gets stiffed. So the socially inferior woman becomes a bigger prize in the marriage game than the English rose. Toffee-nosed racist pigs sniff around Dido while Elizabeth looks forward to spinsterhood, until antislavery idealist John Davinier (Sam Reid) enters the picture. He opens Dido’s eyes to the harsh realities of slavery, reciting what sounds like passages from a pamphlet. “I’ve never heard anyone speak like that,” Dido says. That’s because nobody ever has, probably not even in the 18th century.
This film may have worked better as a miniseries, a kind of Georgian-era “Downton Abbey” with a racial twist. But here all the drama dissipates into set design. In the production notes Asante says she was inspired by an 18th-century portrait of two women, one white and one black, unusual for its age because the women were portrayed as equals. Her research came up with few details, which she filled in with this “Amistad”-like melodrama. Stirring as a story, but as a film much like the painting itself: well composed, pretty, static, and dry.