Jane Austen could be scathing about matters of home and heart, but she's not known for having cast much of a critical eye on world politics, colonialism or slavery -- except for the oft-remarked-upon case of "Mansfield Park." In that 1814 novel, the principal family seems to be the beneficiary of forced labor in the sugar-cane fields of Antigua, a suggestion that provides an uneasy subtext to a story that is otherwise about the writer's usual topics of mismatches and marriage.
The uneasy subject in Amma Asante's "Belle" is race: Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral who gives the girl to his uncle -- Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) -- to raise, creating a situation rife with conflict and contradictions. The girl is a privileged member of a privileged household; she's also black, which makes her an outsider -- as were many Austen heroines, albeit for very different reasons.
While the central issue in "Belle" is far graver than who marries for wealth and who marries for happiness, the processes of Asante's film are essentially those of an 18th century novel and the production that of a very sturdy, stirring soap. Any comparisons to "12 Years a Slave" -- which have been made -- are ridiculous.
Mbatha-Raw gives a wonderful, even indelible performance; the rest of the Brits execute with their usual aplomb -- Wilkinson is always a treat, as is Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield, a name that echoes through all the race-tainted romantic intrigues and political issues of "Belle" with social resonance/relevance. One occasionally wishes Asante had chosen a more rigorous course of action with her period piece, but she perhaps also knows that sugar is more seductive than sermons.
PLOT An illegitimate mixed-race girl is brought up by her white uncle in Victorian England.
RATING PG (thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images)
CAST Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson
BOTTOM LINE Stirring drama whose conflicting impulses -- social critique? "Masterpiece Theatre"? -- make it less than it might have been.