Movie Review: Belle (2014)
Here’s how our concerns for the title character—what we and she worry about—keep shifting in “Belle.”
It’s 1761, and an impossible pretty black girl named Dido (initially Lauren Julien-Box, eventually Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is brought by her white father, Capt. Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), to his uncle’s estate in England, where slavery is still legal. Her African mother has died and Lindsay is about to go to sea again. Someone needs to care for the girl.
That’s our initial concern: Will this impossibly pretty black girl find a place to live in superwhite England, or will she be left to the wolves?
She finds a place to live. (Whew.) The reluctant aunt and uncle, Lady and Lord Mansfield (Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson), agree to bring her up on their estate—along with her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Maden), whose mother has also died. So these two girls, one black and one white, grow up together—laughing and chasing each other around trees, as girls in period pieces are wont to do.
But then the increasingly engaged grandaunt and uncle worry: What happens when we die? Dido will be penniless (and left to the wolves)!
Except her father dies first. And leaves Dido his fortune. Second problem solved.
But we're still in England in the 1770s, and Dido, while impossibly pretty, is still black. No one, certainly no one in society, will be interested in her as a wife. So that’s the next worry: She’ll wind up an old maid like Lady Mary! (Lady Mary, by the way, is played by Penelope Wilton, the annoying Isobel Crawley of “Downton Abbey,” whom no one ever wants to be like.)
Except ... aha! ... a handsome man, John Davinier (Sam Reid), arrives on the estate, and he and Dido meet cute. She’s polite to everyone but him, which means, in movie terms, that she totally likes him. Plus he’s interested in the Zong case—about the destruction of property (read: slaves) aboard a ship, and what it means for insurance law, not to mention English law. Dido’s own uncle, Lord Mansfield, and the Lord Chief Justice, is the man deciding the case.
Not only that, but cousin Elizabeth, who can’t play the piano as well as Dido, is being pursued by James Ashford (Tom Felton, forever Draco Malfoy), and he’s got a taller, handsomer brother, Oliver (James Norton), who’s totally interested in Dido, and not in a creepy way, either. Which is good because Davinier impetuously blows it with Lord Mansfield and has to leave the estate forthwith. Plus Davinier is a mere vicar’s son. It never would have worked.
And there’s no need! In London, Oliver proposes marriage! So this problem is now solved. She won’t wind up an old maid like Lady Mary!
Except ... does she truly love him? Like with John Davinier? Which leads to our next and final worry: Will she wind up with the right man? Also known as: Will she find TRUE LOVE?
You can guess the ending. (She does!) Oh, and the Lord Chief Justice rules properly on the Zong case, paving the way for the eventual abolition of slavery—or at least the slave trade—in England in 1807.
I was bored throughout. The movie is glorified BBC: the heroine ascending the ladder of worries until she winds up with everything. It’s “Masterpiece Theater” with a tan.