Almost every movie accurately described as a "costume drama" deals in some fashion with the inequities of privilege, with the focus usually falling on class and gender divides. With its talented, beautiful and intensely sympathetic mixed-race heiress heroine, Amma Asante's Belle also adds racial inequality into the mix, and the new wrinkle is almost compelling enough to forgive the superficial treatment it receives.
Newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw is all big, pleading eyes as the Belle of the title, who as a little girl gets dropped off by her father with relatives following her mother's death. (He swiftly departs on a naval expedition from which he will never return.) The first thing that Belle's stiff-necked Aunt and Uncle (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson, on auto-pilot) do is take away the mulatto girl's name, rechristening her as Dido, and then they force her to live under a strict set of dehumanizing guidelines.
Belle is not allowed to take dinner with the family, but she is permitted to join them in the parlor afterward. She orders around servants and looks down on lower-born whites, but holds no real power. She is informed that she will never be permitted to marry, while her similarly abandoned, blonde dingbat cousin is paraded around to suitors. That situation is further complicated by the sizable fortune left to Belle by her father, which proves more desirable to titled families than the blonde cousin's "suitable" appearance and nonexistent dowry.
This is where Belle should burrow into these intersecting and often contradictory concepts of power and privilege, but the film is quite content to skim the surface. Much of the dialogue in Misan Sagay's gangly script is devoted to awkwardly explaining how 18th-century British society works, and rather than trusting their own rich concept, Asante and Sagay flippantly shoehorn a love triangle and a courtroom drama into the second half. It's the sort of film that feels compelled to cast Draco Malfoy himself (Tom Felton) in the role of an invective-spewing rich bigot, just to prove that racism is bad.
The courtroom drama angle, which invokes a real-life case fairly instrumental in dismantling the British slave industry, feels tacked-on for the sake of a quasi-inspirational finish. As it plays out in Belle, the case hinges on whether or not Tom Wilkinson's chief justice will ignore existing evidence and side with wealthy slavers, but we never feel like that decision has any sort of moral weight. If he didn't love Belle/Dido like a daughter, he would apparently have no qualms about committing judicial fraud in order to perpetuate the slave trade, but Belle eagerly lets him off the hook.
Only slightly less appealing is the superficial romance between Belle and a parson's son (Sam Reid) who speaks only in quavering oratory. Belle is supposedly torn between him and a smarmy, rich collector of "exotics" who disgustingly refers to her white father as her "better half," yet it feels like a waste of time when you know the deck is stacked.
What's more, Belle and the parson's son are united by shared beliefs rather than shared passion — he is an ardent abolitionist, and introduces Belle to the anti-slavery movement. It is fairly ordinary for movies to misleadingly redirect the real-life flow of racial influences (remember when Marty McFly invented rock 'n roll?), but it feels especially distasteful in a film as promising as Belle.