Is it possible to function in a society where your options are so limited? Can you choose to marry someone for love or for money? What happens when you make a potentially wrong choice that could ruin your future before it started? That was part of the premise behind the DVD release of “Belle,” which had one young woman trying to follow her heart rather than what society dictated for her to do.
“Belle” followed Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who was a woman of privilege, but she couldn’t fully experience based on a circumstance that she had no control over. Dido was a woman of mixed race who had a powerful father (Matthew Goode) who was a Royal Navy Admiral about to go off on a very long assignment that had no clear return date. He went to rescue her from her living arrangement and took her to live with her Great-Uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) to be given the proper care that he couldn’t give her directly. They promised to care for Dido, but they couldn’t fully make her a full fledged member of the family. She could never dine with the family when guests were around and her social future seemed bleak. Dido was considered to be the constant companion of Lord Mansfield’s other niece Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) who was ideal marriage material, but she was penniless which made it hard for men to choose her. Elizabeth had a potential suitor in James Ashford (Tom Felton) who displayed a charming presence in front of her, and often revealed his true colors when he was alone with Dido. Meanwhile, Dido found her love life blossoming in the form of two suitors: one to help to make her standing in society strong and the other was someone who loved Dido for who she was and not her inheritance. While Dido struggled to go with her heart or her head, she grew interested in Lord Mansfield’s case that could help abolish the slave trade in England depending on his decision as the Judge presiding over the case. Will Belle find true love and her identity in the process?
In terms of questions, the movie posed some in a way that they were rather neatly resolved by the time the film’s end credits rolled. What made the movie work was the fact that the main character was a rather engaging one who managed to defy and even rise above all of the expectations that society imposed upon her. Dido managed to persuade her buttoned up Uncle to make a risky decision that could end slavery, but it could also impact his career in a negative way. Even though Dido was the main character, the movie should’ve explained how Lord Mansfield’s decision impacted his career afterwards. It didn’t have to be a whole scene in great detail. A simple blurb at the end would have sufficed. The movie succeeded in exploring Dido’s relationships with everyone in her family and her two suitors. The film’s ultimate key relationship turned out to be Dido’s bond with her stuffy Uncle who loved her no matter what type of facade he pretended to in public. That’s why he had her portrait painted with Elizabeth, but he made Dido a much more prominent figure rather than a background player like past portraits did for colored people. Sadly, the movie’s weaker plot was the court case that ate up most of Lord Mansfield’s time. Sure, the plot could have been a pot boiler that pushed a lot of characters over the edge, but the movie merely used it as a device for Dido to find herself and not as an actual active plot. It’s a shame, because it could have had potential if the subplot was better weaved into the main story as a way to show how it impacted the Mansfield home inside and outside. In the end, the movie’s most unforgettable moment was the real life portrait of Dido and Elizabeth that featured both in equal prominence as a way to showcase that color of one’s skin can’t measure how much they’re loved by their family.
As for breakout performances, Mbatha-Raw and Wilkinson led the pack as their characters proved to be the driving force behind most of the movie. Mbatha-Raw’s Dido proved to be a breakout performance for her that allowed her to showcased as a strong character who could overcome anything life threw her way. Viewers felt for her character as she met and lost her biological father without ever truly knowing the man. It’s a shame that Goode didn’t get more screen time to explore that relationship with Dido, whether in a brief flashback or otherwise. Mbatha-Raw managed to express Dido’s complex emotions as she struggled to have her opinions and know when the rightfully express them without too many consequences. She also gave her character a sense of grace and dignity that might not have come across if it wasn’t for her conscious effort to do so. Her strongest scene came when she received the letter of her father’s death as she tried very hard to grieve for a man that she only knew very briefly. Another memorable one was when she finally got the chance to tell the mother of one of her suitors how she truly felt about her and her family’s narrow minded viewpoint of her ethnicity. Wilkinson, on the other hand, had the more challenging task of trying to add unexpected depth to a wealthy man who sometimes appeared to have respected the rules rather than break them. He made Lord Mansfield someone who could be both stodgy and romantic at heart as he revealed his love for his niece in ways without verbally saying too often. Wilkinson had a genuine rapport with both Mbatha-Raw and Watson that allowed viewers to see different facets to a character that likely wouldn’t have been there if someone else played the role. Let’s hope that Mbatha-Raw get the chance to work together again sooner rather than later.
Verdict: Mbatha-Raw gives a memorable leading performance that shows promise of a new star being born. Let’s just hope that she chooses her next film role wisely to keep building momentum.
DVD Score: 2 out of 5 stars
Movie Rating: PG
1 Star (Mediocre)
2 Stars (Averagely Entertaining)
3 Stars (Decent Enough to Pass Muster)
4 Stars (Near Perfect)
5 Stars (Gold Standard)