In 'Belle,' A Complex Life Tangled In Class And Commerce Bob Mondello reviews Belle, based on a true story about a child of an admiral and a Caribbean slave, raised as an aristocrat in 18th century England.
NPR logo

In 'Belle,' A Complex Life Tangled In Class And Commerce

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/308733902/309040305" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In 'Belle,' A Complex Life Tangled In Class And Commerce

Review

Movie Reviews

In 'Belle,' A Complex Life Tangled In Class And Commerce

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/308733902/309040305" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Fox Searchlight had an incredible success with "12 Years a Slave." The film about a free black man hauled into slavery, won this year's Best Picture Oscar. Well, now the studio is bringing out what our critic Bob Mondello says the reverse of that story. It's a film called "Belle."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Belle's mother was a slave on a Caribbean island, her father, a British admiral unaware that he even had a child until her mother's death in 1769. But he was quick to acknowledge that he had a responsibility to his now 6-year-old daughter, and to do something that many of that era would not have: Take her to England so that while he's at sea, she can be raised by his family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BELLE")

MONDELLO: His wealthy, influential family - somewhat to their shock.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BELLE")

MONDELLO: Uncle's position is that of lord chief justice, one of England's most senior judges. But for that very reason, Lord Mansfield is confident, more than his wife is that society's rules will make sense of their unusual family situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BELLE")

MONDELLO: Dido, as Belle will be known by the family, will grow up just as sheltered and pampered as her blond cousin, Elizabeth, but with a few extra rules. She can't dine with the family, for instance, though she can meet guests away from the dinner table - a tad awkwardly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BELLE")

MONDELLO: Belle, who's played as an adult by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is genteel but increasingly assertive as she's subjected to all sorts of indignities, especially when she comes of marriageable age. She's also kept in the dark about a court case Lord Mansfield is grappling with: a slave ship massacre where the crew threw more than 100 sickly Africans overboard, then made an insurance claim for damaged cargo.

The courtroom arguments give the film much of its heft. But director Amma Asante is intent on making other points about class and commerce, and how women were treated as property in 18th century society; good for joining bloodlines when fortunes are endangered, but not for much else. Belle is required to hold her tongue, though all of this certainly complicates her situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BELLE")

MONDELLO: Though the basic outline of Belle's story are real, including that court case, the filmmakers have invented freely within that outlines, and most of what they've invented feels like vintage Jane Austen: dowries, deceptions, suitors only some of whom are suitable. That has the effect of making the film feel elegant but a little weightless despite the weighty matters at its center.

Still, it's smartly acted, handsome and well-crafted in a way that'll make it irresistible to many viewers - pride with a whole lot of prejudice.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.