Gugu Mbatha-Raw (left) and Sarah Gadon help illustrate issues that aren’t just black and white.
BELLE directed by Amma Asante, written by Misan Sagay, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid and Sarah Gadon. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. 104 minutes. Opens Friday (May 9). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNN
This historical biopic about Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of an 18th century British naval officer and an African slave, aspires to more complexity than its lavish costume-drama packaging will allow.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Larry Crowne, Odd Thomas) makes a strong lead as a young woman brought up among gentry but forever kept at a remove from them; Tom Wilkinson is nicely stuffy as the uncle who raised her; and Sarah Gadon is terrific as his more privileged daughter.
But while Misan Sagay's script is rife with intriguing subtext, the text itself is a little simplistic, with stilted dialogue and broader-than-necessary supporting performances by Miranda Richardson and Tom Felton as Dido's social-climbing antagonists.
Those weaknesses work against director Amma Asante's goal of an accessible, mass-audience drama that shows how the story's issues of race and gender are still (sadly) entirely relevant today.