Much of Belle lingers on indignities hidden as manners that mark the system by which those in power determine lesser: When Dido Elizabeth Belle is permitted to greet guests, she’s positioned in a portrait. It’s omnipresent, by design—this story’s biographical, and reminders of her “place” reflect the law of the land. With every tense pause after someone asks a loaded question, Belle is addressing something that’s often whitewashed.
Belle is at its most interesting when giving its due to the growth of its conflicted, determined heroine (a magnetic Gugu Mbatha-Raw), either biographically or narratively. The film’s widest arc is the Zong slave-ship lawsuit on which her great-uncle must rule and its implications for the family, but it’s equally resonant when Dido confronts the hateful brother of a suitor (a slithery Tom Felton) or meets a servant in the family’s London house and has to wonder if she’s a slave. Dido’s also wealthy, which her loving but penniless cousin Elizabeth (a lively Sarah Gadon) envies, and Dido’s negotiations in the intersection of financial privilege and social prejudice neatly raises her personal stakes.
Amid its social underpinnings, Belle is a story of home as both haven and battlefield. Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Penelope Wilton lend lived-in complications to the family, and director Amma Asante imagines the house as an eternal spring with shadows still lurking in every corner, Dido framed as solitary in gilded rooms where strictures are an invisible guest. It’s a nuanced tension, handled so well by its ensemble that more direct moments can feel like overkill, i.e. the swelling soundtrack that occasionally drowns out some of the many heartfelt speeches. Still, it’s minor bombast in a movie that offers insight elsewhere and places such faith in its cast. Belle is a tale of identity and stature illuminating a corner of history long overdue.