It's when the story expands to include a trial involving murdered slaves, drowned en masse off a slave ship, that Belle takes on a more fascinating weight, for it's the details of this case – how they effect Lord Mansfield's paternal affections for Dido, and how that clashes with his public position as chief legal arbiter in an Empire wholly dependent on a slavery economy – that elevates the material to something particularly compelling and singularly worthwhile. It also charges the tacit romantic tension between Dido and outspoken abolitionist John Davinier (Sam Reid, The Railway Man), son of a minister.

In short, the racial issues these characters have been delicately maneuvering around with sophisticated societal manners are now ones they're forced to confront publicly. And they hold different opinions on how that would best be done, each empathetically reasoned. Director Amma Asante, a Brit of African decent herself (and in only her second feature), navigates these conflicts with an ear that is clearly moral without being didactic. She understands the conflict of the time – for someone like Lord Mansfield especially – and sympathizes rather than judges. That approach respects our intellects while also creating a more emotionally rich experience.

The cast boasts many respected British actors in major and supporting roles, and they collectively serve as an authentic foundation to a screenplay that constructs moments leaning toward the histrionic (or, again, at least too familiar). Mbatha-Raw shines as Dido, displaying a range from light intimacy to resolute conviction, in what could be a breakout role for the young starlet. She's well-matched by Reid, who no doubt will be cast in more smart romantic leading roles based on his work here.

Yes, stretches of Belle follow formula, and are even intuitively predictable, while also resorting to heightened melodrama in brief spurts, but the general execution is polished and first-rate, and ultimately it succeeds not so much by the mystery of where it’s all headed but rather in what these people must work through to get there. It's in that where the emotional satisfaction of the experience comes, thanks to the core performances and, in particular, a recurring motif of slave paintings that has a deeply affecting payoff. By the end, Belle becomes an historical drama that resonates as much in the soul as it does the mind.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Brief moments of smoking.
  • Language/Profanity: One D-word. Some racially-bigoted comments, but no actual slurs.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Some kissing and embracing; tame by modern standards. Themes of illegitimate out-of-wedlock birth. A verbal reference to intercourse (that’s the word used). A man threatens physical/sexual violence towards Dido, but it’s strongly suggested through an intense grab and stare (not words or specific physicality).
  • Violence/Other: None.

Publication date: May 23, 2014