Film review: Belle (12A)

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BEAUTY is in the eye of the beholder but when that beauty defies the social mores of a prejudiced era, it must be cherished in secret.

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Belle is the enchanting dramatisation of a true story of fortitude across racial and class divides at a time when pompous men of privilege were vociferously debating the end of slavery in England.

The high-profile case at the centre of the debate concerned the crew of a ship called the Zong, who had thrown dozens of slaves overboard because they claimed they did not have enough supplies for the duration of the voyage.

When the ship reached port, the Zong’s Liverpool-based owners demanded compensation for the lost slaves but insurers refused to honour the claim.

The subsequent trial posed uncomfortable questions about the monetary value of human life.

Inspired by an 18th-century painting commissioned by William Murray, who was then Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Amma Asante’s handsome period piece illuminates the debate and some of the characters, whose lives intersected at this historical crossroads.

Elegantly scripted by Misan Sagay, Belle is a beautifully crafted companion piece to 12 Years A Slave that traverses a moral maze through British eyes and reminds us that we have blood on our hands too.

The ensemble cast delivers excellent performances, particularly Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido, the heroine of the piece, who possesses beauty and vulnerability on camera.

She catalyses smouldering screen chemistry with Sam Reid’s idealistic lawyer John Davinier, and Tom Wilkinson who, as Lord Mansfield, brings pomp and circumstance to his pivotal role as a man with the power to chip away at the foundations of the legal firmament.

Dramatic momentum steadily builds to Lord Mansfield’s deliberation on the Zong case, watched intently by Dido and Davinier.