The charming historical drama “Belle” is something we don’t see very often at the multiplexes, or even the arthouses: a film inspired by a centuries-old painting. In a palace in Scotland hangs an 18th-century portrait of two lovely young women; it is unsigned and its artist unknown. Both of the painting’s subjects are beautifully dressed, in silken gowns and pearls. One holds a book, the other a tray of fruit; one’s hand rests casually on the other’s waist, indicating an easy closeness. One of these aristocratic young women is pale; the other dark-skinned. They are, as it turns out, cousins — and “Belle” tells the based-on-fact story of their unusual life together.
Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy captain, apparently born in the West Indies and sent to England as a child to be raised by her great-uncle (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson) at aristocratic Kenwood House, alongside her half-cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). From here, the movie quickly jumps ahead to the girls’ late teens, and to Jane Austen territory of late-1700s marriage, society, inheritance and love.
Directed with elegance by Amma Asante, “Belle” is a fascinating real-life twist on a familiar pattern. Dido is no Dickensian orphan; she’s a wealthy young heiress (her father died overseas) who’s loved by her guardians — though she doesn’t dine with the family when company is present. As a woman of mixed race, she is twice unequal, though her money guards her from the worst of fates. (Cousin Elizabeth, who has no fortune, is in many ways just as trapped.) Though her life is a typical society-lady run of needlework and visits, Dido slowly becomes aware of slavery and injustice, transforming into an 18th-century version of “the personal is political.”
It’s an old-fashioned movie with a very modern streak, centered by a vibrant star turn by Mbatha-Raw, whose watchful, wise Dido makes an enchanting heroine. “I don’t know as I find myself anywhere,” she says, curious at a world that seems to hold no place for her. Throughout this film, you root for her, hoping she — and we — will find a better world someday.
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Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org