Belle – reviews of 'rousing' period drama about slavery

Belle

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is 'radiant' in handsome historical drama about the anti-slavery movement

LAST UPDATED AT 07:46 ON Fri 13 Jun 2014

What you need to know
British period drama Belle opens in UK cinemas today. The film, directed by Amma Asante, is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed race woman thought to have influenced the abolitionist movement in England.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a navy officer, raised as an aristocrat by her uncle Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice. Dido begins a relationship with a young lawyer and abolitionist that influences her uncle's decision in a case that will advance the anti-slavery cause. With Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson.

What the critics like
This "rousing historical fantasia", loosely based on a true story, uses Jane Austen's novels as a template, says David Denby in the New Yorker. Factually, the movie is probably a fraud, but it's crisply entertaining, and Mbatha-Raw delivers her increasingly confident lines with tremulous emotion and, finally, radiant authority.

This is a "handsome historical drama" with a tough, tender performance from Mbatha-Raw, says Annie Errigo in Empire. Weighty thesps Wilkinson and Watson add gravitas to this very pretty and worthy "12 Years at Downton Abbey".

Belle takes the same genteel, breezy approach to the dance around wealth, power and marriage that you'd expect from a Jane Austen adaptation, which lends this watchable spin on an exceptional life a whiff of subversion, says Dave Calhoun in Time Out. And there are  "raw, uncomfortable moments, helped by a strong performance of fragile resolve from Mbatha-Raw".

What they don't like
"Belle isn't awful, but it is awfully slow, didactic and far too reliant on Mbatha-Raw's fine, expressive eyes," says Siobhan Synnot in The Scotsman. There's an important chapter of human history under all the corseted grace of this tasteful period piece. · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.