‘Belle’ blends bondage and bigotry with beauty

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When you go to see an exquisite period piece, you leave certain things at the door. You shuck off your expectations of gender equity, and you lay down your ideas about bigotry. You accept that the only representation of nonwhites will exist in servants, prostitutes and the proprietor of the odd opium den.

Amma Asante’s “Belle” provides all of the benefits of a period film, but you may find yourself rushing back to the door to retrieve your baggage. Here is a Georgian wonder of powdered wigs and formality, but race and slavery will also enter into a discussion of a woman’s place in society. A marriage plot will be complicated by the legality of treating humans as cargo and property, and the old marriage-for-love chestnut becomes touching once again.

Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the biracial daughter of a captain in the British navy and a member of the peerage. After the death of Dido’s mother, Captain Lindsay (Matthew Goode) brings Dido to his family’s estate, where she is raised with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). The two grow up as sisters in the home of Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) and Lord Chief Justice William Murray (Tom Wilkinson). Dido’s life is complicated by her race and position, and deciding who and how she will marry becomes her chief concern.

Meanwhile, cases that lay the foundation for the abolition of slavery in Great Britain rage on, aided by students such as John Davinier (Sam Reid). Dido must choose for herself whether she wants to marry a gentleman who accepts her color or a man who loves her but may not equal her rank. Although this plot is familiar, it is enriched by the inclusion of the race issue and the fact that this film is based on the true story of the real Dido Elizabeth Belle.

Dido is a likely and quick-witted woman, shown in contemplation of great books and as a master of the piano. She becomes aware of the difficulty of her position in scenes both subtle and heart-wrenching. In one, she examines the gaze of subjugated black figures in paintings — in another, she is banned from eating dinner with her own family when guests are present. Mbatha-Raw plays Dido with a youthful vigor and emotional edge that make it impossible to tear your eyes away. Playing against Gadon’s bubbly, typical would-be bride, Dido has a particular gravity. Watson and Wilkinson are masterful as the parents in the film: stern but loving and deft with dialogue that offers exposition without being tiresome.

The crux of the film rests on Reid’s character falling in love with Dido while simultaneously educating her about a sinister crime committed by slavers on the Middle Passage. The connection between Dido and the slaves in question becomes inescapable, made palpable by Dido’s contact with a black maid Mabel (Bethan Mary-James), who teaches Dido how to brush her own hair for the first time in her life.

With a witty script and brilliant performances in the principal cast, “Belle” is deeply engrossing. Add the unusual dollop of conscience to a gorgeous period film with moan-inducing costumes, and this film stands out as something entirely new and different. Consider that a generation of girls will have “Belle” as a template for the kind of princess-fixation formerly denied to anyone who did not feel she fit, and the value of the film in representation alone becomes clear. “Belle” achieves on every level, forgoing the chance to be notable merely for its conscience, landing flawlessly on the talent in writing, acting and directing it offers. Like Dido herself, “Belle” gives nothing away.

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].