The enchantment in Amma Asante's Belle is in the title character's face. Asante trains her camera on Gugu Mbatha-Raw's eyes, which signal brilliantly flattery and fear, intimidation and indignation, rage and romance -- the range of emotions she goes through as the illegitimate, biracial daughter of a British naval officer in 18th century England who is left in the care of the officer's aristocratic uncle and aunt. The child, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, but called Dido (not Belle, as the title would suggest), is reared in splendor but relegated to a station lower than the other residents of the estate where she lives -- her loving cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), her spinster aunt Mary (Penelope Alice Wilton) and the Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson). Screenwriter Misan Sagay has crafted parallel story lines based on the true story of Lady Lindsay. One involves the intrigues surrounding Lady Elizabeth's debut in London society as the impoverished though cultured and cherished niece of the Mansfields. The other concerns a case that Lord Mansfield will be ruling on as Lord Chief Justice that involves the suspicious drowning of slaves by a ship's captain. The young and fiery son of a local minister comes to clerk for Mansfield and falls captive to Dido's beauty and she to his passionate resolution to end slavery. The young squire, Daviner, is played by Sam Reid, whom I recently saw in another fine British film, The Railway Man. The chemistry between Dido and the ardent Davinier is undeniable and their courtship is handled with grace. It's a splendid film, sensitively pitched, and uses human servitude to explore questions of identity, honor and justice, writ large and small. Highly recommended.


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