In last year’s biographical “12 Years a Slave,” race trumped class as Solomon Northup – a free, educated, middle-class black man living in 19th-century New York – found himself dragged into Southern bondage, his status unable to protect him.
In the less harrowing but equally fascinating “Belle,” also based on a true story, class trumps race in 18th-century England as the mixed-heritage title character is saved from the most brutal effects of slavery by her great-uncle’s position as a Supreme Court justice.
But the thorny topic of race is never far beneath the surface as Belle (an impressive Gugu Mbatha-Raw) discovers that her seemingly idyllic childhood spent rollicking around the estate with her white cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), is turning into an adolescence and adulthood that’s as much Jane Pittman as Jane Austen.
She may have been willed a fortune by her late white father, Capt. Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), the man who left her in the care of his initially hesitant uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), and aunt (Emily Watson) before returning to a life at sea, but it’s the heritage of her Caribbean slave mother that has doomed her to a life of less-than.
There are indignities, like the fact that she’s not allowed to dine with the family. She’s casually referred to by visitors as “the mulatto.” Unlike Elizabeth, she can’t “come out” to society and expect any of the proper gentlemen of the time to ask for her hand in marriage.
At the same time, she can’t eat with the servants or get involved with someone of a lesser station, as that would bring shame to the Mansfield name. She seems doomed to a life of secluded spinsterhood.
But then she strikes the fancy of two men: Oliver Ashford (James Norton), a man whose interests may not be pure, and John Davinier (Sam Reid), who has the unfortunate luck – by Mansfield-family logic – to have been born the son of a lowly minister.
Meanwhile, Mansfield has to render a verdict in a case – involving the operators of a slave ship who tossed their human cargo overboard – that has England on tenterhooks. His ruling could either embolden slave traders or usher in the start of the practice’s end.
All of this is rendered in exquisite period detail by writer Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante (who only has one other feature-film directing credit, “A Way of Life” from 2004).
There’s the occasional false note. The proto-abolitionist Davinier has been given dialogue that verges on the preachy. But this is a small quibble in a story of 250-year-old pride and prejudice that resonates today.