A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Belle is a deeply affecting, fascinating drama that brings to light a true story about a mixed-race woman -- the illegitimate daughter of a British admiral in the late 1700s -- who becomes an activist (and a worthy role model!) by educating herself and her uncle on the perils of the slave trade. Though the movie has no curse words and no overtly sexual situations (there's one kiss), the subject matter is complex and perhaps too heavy for very young kids. But older kids, tweens, and teens would do well to see it, as it explores issues of race and gender equality with sensitivity and grace. There's much to learn here from the struggles of 18th-century England, with lessons still applicable today.
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What's the story?
Upon the death of her West Indian mother, Maria Belle, young Dido Elizabeth Belle (played as a woman by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is whisked away to England by her white father, Captain John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), who wants her to be raised among the aristocracy. Because her father must return to sea, Dido is raised by his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), a firm but kind guardian and a very important judge, and his wife, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson). Dido is loved by her family, including her young cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who struggles with the standards imposed on women during the late 1700s -- i.e. having to appear to be a good match for a man, with little regard for whether she might find marrying him desirable. But Dido faces an even bigger struggle. Not only is she a woman in a patriarchal society, because of her mixed-race background, she's also treated as invisible (or worse) by almost everyone outside her household. When her great-uncle is called upon to decide a case that could lay the foundation for abolishing slavery, Dido finds her voice with the help of John Davinier (Sam Reid), the activist son of a clergyman.
Is it any good?
BELLE is an important, engrossing, and incredibly affecting movie. It sheds light on a story -- based on true events though fictionalized to a degree here -- that could have languished in history books and dissertations if not for director Amma Asante and lead actress Mbatha-Raw, who've turned it into cinematic reality. It's complicated in the best way; viewers will find themselves mulling over the issues of race, class, and gender equality long after viewing. In scene after scene, Asante unpacks the layers of prejudice and oppression that cloaked British society in the late 1700s. And though Dido lived hundreds of years ago, her struggles to define her identity and fight discrimination, in thought, speech, and actions, are still relevant in today's world.
Though it helps that screenwriter Misan Sagay sometimes takes great pains to ensure that viewers understand what's at stake here -- that the decision Lord Mansfield is about to hand down could be the first major step in abolishing British slave trade -- there may be a few too many turns in the script. The connection that needs to be emphasized is complicated and very significant, true, but the dialogue is a trifle too pointed, with the significance repeated many times, which doesn't let viewers connect the clear dots themselves. The writing also sometimes sacrifices wit for instruction. But the good far outweighs the (trifling) bad, especially when it comes to the outstanding ensemble of the cast. Wilkinson and Watson are superb as Lord and Lady Mansfield, renegades in their own right, and Mbatha-Raw approaches her role with great care and delicacy. She and Gadon are delightful to watch together, as is the entire movie.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Belle's messages. Is it easy to stand up for what's right? Why is it important to do so, even when everything seems to be against you? Can you think of any modern situations with parallels to what's covered in the movie?
Belle is based on a true story. Do you think it's 100% accurate? Why might filmmakers choose to alter or adjust historical fact? How could you find out more about the real people involved in the story?
How does Dido change over the course of the movie? To what do you attribute her growth? Is she a positive role model?
- In theaters: May 2, 2014
- On DVD or streaming: August 26, 2014
- Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson
- Director: Amma Asante
- Studio: Fox Searchlight
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Great Girl Role Models, History
- Run time: 103 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements, some language and brief smoking images
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