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Sometimes you choose the glamorous life, and sometimes it chooses you. In Belle, the glamorous life chooses the smart and feisty heroine in this thoughtful, sensitive and gorgeously done movie.
The film follows Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a mixed race girl, whose mother died. Her aristocratic English father (Matthew Goode) takes her in, acknowledges her as his daughter and takes her to live in his home with his wealthy family. His family is noticeably shocked and resistant to the idea. Dido’s existence and her father’s acknowledgment of paternity forces uncomfortable questions to rise in the rigid English aristocracy.
Dido grows up with her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), and the two are best friends and practically sisters. The family patriarch (Tom Wilkinson) and the rest become endeared to Dido, though they have to obey certain ridiculous and restrictive society rules, one of which involves Dido being unable to eat with the family at dinner time. There’s also the ridiculous notion that Dido won’t be able to find a husband, though she’s wealthy and blue blooded not to mention smart, talented and beautiful to boot.
Ironically, Dido is involved in a sort-of love triangle, while Elizabeth, the traditional English beauty, has difficulty finding a match. The love triangle is such that the audience will find itself yelling, “Oh, just make out already!”
There’s also an important subplot about Dido’s great-uncle, who’s a judge, ruling on a case of insurance fraud. On the surface, such a thing seems boring and unimportant. But in the plot with this movie, the insurance fraud has to do with a slave ship’s crew drowning slaves for insurance money. The court case is also how Dido is introduced to one of her love interests.
Belle is almost too smart for its own good. This movie juxtaposes ornate, lavish costumes and scenery with the ugliness of racism, sexism and bigotry, which is clever and uncomfortable. The cinematography is fantastic as well, especially with the usage of light.
Blatant racism and violence aren’t the conflicts factors in Belle. Yes, these two things both happen, but they aren’t as big of a problem to Dido as the crushing British social mores and legal system. Dido is someone who chafes at these restrictions, she is someone who doesn’t believe she should be ashamed for being exactly who she is. And that’s pretty damn awesome, especially in 18th century England.
There are so many little beautiful moments in this movie: the discussion of how people of color are represented in art, the maid teaching Dido how to brush her hair, the cute exchange between Dido and John Davinier (Sam Reid), Elizabeth and Dido giggling and sharing secrets and Dido being clever and sneaky.
There are a few missteps in this movie – the biggest being that it alternates between incredible subtlety and beating the audience over the head with “this is racist!” moments. But at least that keeps the film interesting.
Belle expects audiences to pay attention and care, and they should. Make no mistake, this movie isn’t a feel-good romp, but it’s one of the few films out there that’s brave and smart enough to talk about these issues in an engaging and thoughtful way.