No, Belle is not a Beauty and the Beast period drama. Sweep that idea aside right now. It is a fancy drama set when the British Empire was strong, the dream of marrying into class was a priority, and people openly discussed worth based on what you did or didn’t do for a living. This was a time when mothers died tragically and commonly, when rude beasts made cool boyfriends, and when girls named Belle escaped the restrictions of provincial life. Slavery was also a thing.
Unless you were popular, rich, married, and social, 1779 was not an easy time to be alive. For young Belle in particular, life could be better. Born to Captain Sir John Lindsay (a man with enough titles to mean something), Belle should have been comfortable; but back then wealth didn’t overrule one’s unpopularly dark skin. After the early death of Belle’s mother, white man Captain John delivers his brown-skinned daughter to his relatives, since it would be improper to bring his little girl aboard a naval ship. John’s relatives are hesitant to take in a mixed race girl, no matter if she’s their grandniece or not. After a little persuasion the couple agrees that their other grandniece, Elizabeth, could use a companion. Still they refuse to call her Belle, preferring her given name, Dido (pronounced Daie-doh), instead. The two girls, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), build an inseparable bond and come of age together in the stately home. It’s a loving upbringing, with a few exceptions: Elizabeth is a terrible singer and Dido is ostracized from family dinners. The tensions rise when Elizabeth comes out in society and when their uncle – Lord Chief Justice of England – oversees a case of mass murder on a slave ship. It’s tough to say what we’re most eager to see: a just ruling or a fine marriage.
Race, feminism, class, and little fancy hats – Belle is certainly a period drama and it ticks every box. One minute we’re searching for a non-abusive husband and the next we’re watching a young lady leak evidence to the radical opposition to undermine her papa’s ruling. Which movie am I watching? Belle is back and forth between a lady’s duty to marry, including the procession of jerks she has to wade through, and a gentleman’s duty to condemn human trafficking for the good of king and country. It is a “pleasure party” (the actual name for a garden without escorts) vs. a law library. In the mix we have a beautiful woman who can throw a counterargument like a javelin and a little snot (Little Snot played by Tom Felton) whose best defence is being a white male. Belle is three movies for the price of one.
Dido only becomes aware of the slavery case when Mr. Davinier (Sam Reid) begins to study law under her uncle. Davinier is a vocal advocate of equal rights, a great analyzer of evidence, and madly in love with Dido. While Elizabeth gushes over the chrysanthemums, Dido and Davinier sneak off to discuss ethics. Although Dido grew up with a family that loves her, Belle emphasizes how othered she is outside of the home. From casually racist comments to the daily challenge of the hair brush, Dido never has it easy. We instantly like Davinier because he sees it all and carries on as normal. While Dido’s uncle instinctively fights for the white guys, Davinier is eager to do the hard thing and advocate for a minority.
Dido, miraculously, isn’t a submissive ward who’s just grateful to be here; she takes the insults and throws them back with a rebuttal. She may look different but, good Sir, at least she isn’t ill-mannered or untalented. Dido comes out of her shell when there’s a rule that really needs to be broken. She makes Belle a strong movie, even if there’s a little too much going on.
The forced romance and desperate husband-fishing is all very period accurate, and it gives a bit of light air to the story; but the other half of Belle pulls us down with the heavy issue of drowning slaves for profit. Belle is a bit of a Rubik’s cube with a lot of brightly coloured stories that shift around each other but never really blend. The music is dramatically beautiful, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido is emotionally driven; but there is so much going on that it’s hard to really dig into the romance or the historical significance or the female empowerment. Just pick one. Belle is beautifully filmed and a pleasure to watch, but it’s not quite memorable at a 7/10.