Belle is a very compact and complicated movie, and if your hearing is as bad as mine, you will want to ask the ticket booth for a free set of headphones because you won’t want to miss any of the dialogue, which is so well written that you’ll have no trouble following the numerous plots and themes.
Belle, beautifully played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is an orphan, mixed-race, and a love child born out of wedlock, and all three conditions are important as she comes to live with Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson in England in 1769.
They treat her almost like a member of the family, but Wilkinson is the Lord Chief Justice of England, and there is a case before him that runs through every element of the movie, and he has another niece to look out for as well as the dignity of his office. There are three suitors for Belle, and a lot of social class problems.
But it will all be perfectly clear if you listen carefully to the dialogue, which does not waste a word. It’s remarkable how much characterization is put into speech that is very rarely above a murmur—these people are properly English, including Belle, and do not shout or even eften raise their arms above their waists.
Acting is uniformly excellent, and attitudes toward slavery and race are individually varied. Slavery itself is as much a matter of economics and law as morality. There is a lot of historical fact in Belle.
But mostly, Belle is first-rate as romance or history or just plain gorgeous photography and sets and costumes—a real surprise as a summer movie for grownups.