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‘Belle’: Interesting history obscured in paint-by-numbers plot

Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw left with Sarah Gadon) illegitimate daughter British naval captagrows up be an aristocrwho has trouble fitting insociety.

Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, left, with Sarah Gadon), the illegitimate daughter of a British naval captain, grows up to be an aristocrat who has trouble fitting into society. | FOX SEARCHLIGHT

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‘BELLE’ ★★1⁄2

Dido Belle Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Lord Mansfield Tom Wilkinson

Lady Mansfield Emily Watson

Sam Reid John Davinier

Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a film directed by Amma Asante and written by Misan Sagay. Running time: 104 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: June 10, 2014 6:11AM

One look at the real-life portrait of 18th-century biracial aristocrat Dido Elizabeth Belle should be enough to convince you there’s a story worth telling in “Belle” — and there is.

It’s just a shame it has to hide in plain sight, obscured by standard-issue romantic piffle.

The portrait, painted in 1779, features the vivacious, dark-skinned Belle, sporting pearls and a feathered turban, with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray in a pose that clearly indicates equal status. In fact, several things about the painting suggest her superiority (in the mind of the artist, at least). Such a depiction was extraordinarily rare for portraits of the time.

As were the circumstances of Belle’s life. Few personal details are known, but she seems to have been raised as a companion to her cousin on the estate of the Earl of Mansfield, England’s Lord Chief Justice — known today for several landmark rulings that severely damaged the slave trade in England. Mere coincidence from a man who welcomed the daughter of a slave into his family? Apparently, his opponents didn’t think so.

“Belle” begins with British naval Captain John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) presenting his illegitimate daughter to his uncle, the initially shocked and appalled Lord Mansfield (the reliably excellent Tom Wilkinson), and asking him to take her in. Cut to Belle frolicking with young Elizabeth in the garden and then flash-forward 10 years to Belle as a beautiful, accomplished, intelligent young woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, most impressive) receiving the news that her father has died and made her an heiress.

Not a bad setup for a young lady, you may be thinking, but there’s a downside. Belle’s illegitimacy makes her less than ideal, marriage-wise, among the aristocracy, and her racial makeup prevents her from fitting anywhere in society. Her dark skin means she can’t dine formally with the family (or make her social debut with Elizabeth), and her rank is too high to dine with the servants.

“Belle” is most interesting, actually, when pointing out that social rank was a much more serious concern than race in Belle’s world. Racism does make an appearance in the form of the despicable Lord Ashford (Tom Felton, best known as Draco Malfoy) and his equally despicable mother (Miranda Richardson). “You will refrain from intercourse with the negro,” hisses Lady Ashford when her younger son expresses interest. All while Lord Mansfield ponders the actual, factual, politically explosive case of the slave ship Zong and the insurance claim its owners filed when the captain claimed he was forced to drown his cargo.

These elements could have been developed in any number of ways, but it’s pretty clear what actress-turned-director Amma Asante has in mind for “Belle” when John Davinier (Sam Reid) shows up to become Lord Mansfield’s secretary. In addition to being swooningly handsome, the idealistic Davinier is also an ardent abolitionist as well as an anachronistically enlightened supporter of female equality — and he and Belle dislike each other on sight. Need we say more?

Soon, he has made Belle aware of the importance of the Zong case and she’s rifling Lord Mansfield’s office for incriminating documents. And the handsomely produced, Merchant Ivory-style period drama is on a mission to resolve the slavery issue and unite two hearts that beat as one. Simultaneously, of course, in one big, mega-dramatic, chest-swelling finale.

Powerful stuff, for sure. Yet, when Asante finally closes with a close-up of Belle’s portrait, there’s something in her eyes and her smile that suggests so much more.

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