The one adjective that leaps to mind when describing Amma Asante's period race-relations drama Belle is "decent." That word isn't meant to damn the movie with faint praise, but to stress how respectable, modest, and proper this handsomely mounted production is. Yet the problem with decency in art is that it doesn't grab one's attention.
Set in 18th century England and based on a true story, Belle stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the title character -- whose full name is Dido Elizabeth Belle. She is the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of British admiral Sir John Lindsay and a black woman he had an affair with while serving overseas. Lindsay entrusts her care to his uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and aunt Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson), who are already raising another niece the same age as Dido named Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon).
Although Lady Mansfield fears that having a dark-skinned child in her home will lead to scandal, Dido's father reminds them that his daughter has the right to live there because of her lineage; Lord Mansfield, a Lord Chief Justice of Britain, agrees. Belle and Elizabeth quickly become best friends, and when they come of age each begins courting suitors.
Elizabeth is pursued by James Ashford (Tom Felton), a smarmy and racist manipulator who wants to marry her in order to please his equally conniving mother (Miranda Richardson) by increasing their family's wealth and standing. Dido proves alluring to James' brother Oliver (James Norton), but her deepest affections are for John Davinier (Sam Reid), an idealistic young lawyer who is trying to sway Lord Mansfield on a crucial case before the high court that will have profound implications for Britain's slave trade.
Screenwriter Misan Sagay has more or less grafted a classic Jane Austen marriage plot onto a high-minded social-problem film -- think Amistad meets Emma -- and that's certainly an original concoction. And while the plot threads interweave smoothly, the two different stories are so utterly predictable and by-the-numbers that it's hard to become engaged by the movie. The major story lines are serviceable, but the performances and handsome production design deserve better.
Mbatha-Raw carries the picture as the leading lady, and cinematographer Ben Smithard shoots her so that we never forget that she lives up to the film's title -- she's the most beautiful presence in a movie filled with gorgeous costumes and sets. Mbatha-Raw is more than just a pretty face, ably tackling the kaleidoscope of emotions Dido experiences, but the script does her few favors because it's all so familiar. There are no surprises, and that makes it easier to appreciate her performance but more difficult to invest in her character.
The same holds true for the rest of the cast. If you have to saddle an actor with a wealth of exposition, you can't do better than Wilkinson, who manages to give his character a lovely paternal air as he's forced to explain the intricacies of British law to the other characters and to us. A chilly Emily Watson looks perfect for the period, Tom Felton's hissable bad guy is detestable from his first scene, and Sarah Gadon actually gets the juiciest scene in the movie -- one in which she says regrettable things to her beloved Dido in a moment of heartbreak and self-pity.
That scene is the only one where the film's Masterpiece Theatre sheen drops and a character we like does something seemingly unforgivable (or at least irreversible). It's the closest the movie gets to being "raw," and while Elizabeth's invective is still couched in Old World manners and tasteful visuals, it hits harder than anything else in the picture because it shows how deeply racism can insinuate itself into a person without their ever realizing it. In that one moment, racism isn't a concept that must be defeated, but a reality that good people must confront within themselves.
On the whole, however, Belle does not confront its audience. It instead soothes by telling a pair of feel-good stories in a familiar way. It's well-made, appropriate, and morally righteous, but it's hard not to wish it was more interesting and engaging.