May 16, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'Belle' finds a black woman lost among British aristocrats

Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as the the daughter of a Royal Navy officer in the drama 'Belle.' (David Appleby)

“Belle” is a nicely designed history lesson with heart.

In 18th century England, a young black girl, the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy officer (Matthew Goode), is brought to the home of his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), a powerful magistrate. There she is raised as family by the Lord and his Lady (Emily Watson).

Well, not quite family. The girl who grows up to be Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is, after all, both black and illegitimate, so her supper is served separately. But at the same time, she does have noble blood in her veins, and after her father passes away, she’s an heiress.

Much of “Belle” wrestles with the clash between tradition and progress. Belle is as cultured as any Englishwoman, but her mere presence in high society sets things on edge. To add to the moral confusion, Lord Mansfield is tasked with passing judgment on a legal issue that is likely to transform the status of slaves in Great Britain. Will his love for his adopted daughter sway his judgment?

Despite the color of her skin, Belle is courted by a young, if poor, aristocrat, Oliver Ashford (James Norton), even if his boorish brother (Tom Felton) strongly disapproves.

But Oliver’s affections seem more driven by curiosity than true love. Belle begins to sense this as she builds a relationship with John Davinier (Sam Reid), a common lawyer and abolitionist.

Director Amma Asante celebrates the pomp and elegance of British royalty even as she punctures its pretentiousness. The film simply looks lovely, never moreso than when Mbatha-Raw is on screen. All the scrambled notions of class, privilege, race and propriety crumble in the face of her civility and intelligence. It’s a role, and an approach, well-played.

'Belle'

GRADE: B

Rated PG for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images

Running time: 104 minutes

“Belle” (PG) A young black woman (a fine Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised by an aristocratic family in 18th century England but struggles to find her place in life in this history lesson with heart. (104 minutes) GRADE: B

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