Belle tackles a pair of evils

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Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sarah Gadon, and Tom Wilkinson. Rated 14A.

A Masterpiece Theatre–style look at England’s slave-trade culture not long before it was abolished, Belle is a serviceable and generally satisfying costume drama that does no harm to cinema while doing nothing to advance it, either.

The nicely shot tale begins in a grotty part of London in 1769, where a British naval officer is retrieving the daughter he conceived with an African slave. Played by Matthew Goode, the captain ensconces her with his aristocratic family and then shoves off again. The girl—called Dido, although Belle is a barely mentioned part of her name—is left with Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) and an aging dowager (Penelope Wilton).

Within minutes, she grows into a radiant young woman played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a 30-year-old Brit-TV veteran, and is seen living a sheltered, somewhat tenuous existence with her furiously blond half-cousin Elizabeth (Canada’s Sarah Gadon). The family loves Dido, but they’re still antsy about presenting her in public, especially when Lord Mansfield—England’s top judge, as it happens—is put in charge of a case in which slavers killed their “cargo” to get insurance money.

Dido eventually inherits a substantial sum, making her more independent than most women of her time, which confounds Elizabeth, due to inherit zero but her good name. They are pursued by two brothers (James Norton and Harry Potter villain Tom Felton) plagued by widely varying degrees of racism, although Dido’s real soul mate is a penniless vicar’s son (The Railway Man’s Sam Reid), who’s an ardent abolitionist.

This is all very Jane Austen, but much of the appeal in Austen’s tales is that each time you encounter them, they seem to be about something slightly different. Belle is only about a few things and, in the handling of sophomore director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay (now having an unfortunate dispute over script authorship), not a single scene is devoted to anything but furthering a blunt—if entirely cerebral—message about the twin evils of slavery and misogyny. The message sticks, but by denying these characters anything like their own quirky individuality, they get robbed once again.

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