With all the talk I do about how much I love reading romance, it may come as a surprise that I don’t particularly care for romantic movies. Sure, I have a handful I like (Love Actually, anyone?), but it’s not really a genre that gets me to the theater.
However, of all romance, historical romance comes closest to being my crack, so when I first heard about Belle and then later saw positive reviews for it, I decided to actually catch it in the theater.
And I’m glad I did, because it was a lovely, lovely movie.
Belle is based loosely on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an illegitimate mulatto girl raised by her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who also happened to be the Lord Chief Justice of England. The movie has two significant plot threads: Dido’s dealings with two suitors (one of whom is “suitable” for her rank and one who isn’t), and the Lord Chief Justice’s impending ruling on the case of the slave ship Zong (which was a landmark case in the ultimate abolition of slavery in England).
Dido has an unusual amount of freedom for the time period, both a black person and a woman. She’s the daughter of an aristocrat and grows up with the protection and most of the privilege that entails. And later, her father’s death leaves her an heiress, with enough money to live comfortably without ever seeking marriage, if she so desires.
However, despite her privileges, Dido’s skin color still keeps her on the outside, looking in. There’s a delicate balance of rules she has to follow, even within her own home and especially when guests are around. Being black is something she’s never allowed to forget, and so neither are we.
At the same time, Dido has a happy life. It’s clear that her aunt and uncle love her very deeply, even if they don’t always know the best way to show it. Plus, she and her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), are best friends, as close as sisters, and I absolutely loved their relationship.
The sparks between Dido and John Davinier (Sam Reid) are intense and immediate, and hot holy damn, did those two make some eyes at each other. Davinier is an extremely passionate character, intensely idealistic, and it’s talking to him that gets Dido interested in the Zong case. I wish we had gotten to hear more of their conversations as they’re getting to know each other, because what we do hear is so, so great.
One of my favorite parts of historical romance is the dialogue, and the dialogue in Belle is so, so great. Dido has the most beautifully eloquent “Fuck you, I do what I want” speech at the end of the movie. I very nearly stood up and cheered in the theater.
Often, movies with this kind of plot—a character with a foot in two worlds, but who isn’t quite able to belong to either—end tragically, but Belle avoids that trap. In fact, I wish the ending had been a little longer, to give us a true denouement to the film.
My one real complaint about the movie is the inclusion of a scene where Dido is physically attacked by a particularly despicable character. Said character is already despicable, even before this scene, and to me, it served to do little more than make him irredeemable and add in some unnecessary violence. I kind of wish it had been excised completely, and that we’d been given more time with Dido and Davinier instead.
But really, that’s a three-minute blemish on an otherwise wonderful movie. Honestly, with the social issues and the court case and the angst, it felt a lot as though someone had taken a Courtney Milan book and made a movie out of it. (Slightly different era, but still.) I enjoyed it just as much as I hoped I would, which is really all you can ask. If you like romantic movies, give this one a chance.