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BELLE // Having starred in countless television movies and adding small supporting roles to recent films like “Larry Crowne” and “Odd Thomas”, actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw makes her first breakout leading performance in Amma Asante’s first film in almost a decade, the period piece titled “Belle”. Based on a 1779 painting of the real life Dido Elizabeth Belle next to her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, the film is just as much about extrapolating on what Dido’s life could have been like as it is about introducing the unflinchingly gorgeous Gugu Mbatha-Raw to the world. With such exotic features, I found myself hypnotized as she effortlessly strolls around in some of the most vibrant and intricate dresses and sets of that period, stealing every scene that she graces. The character of Dido Belle is also the perfect launching point for Mbatha-Raw, as she plays a strong-willed, opinionated beauty who floats between the world of the high class society, including her aunt, uncle, and cousin, and the world of the maids, using the perfect line “how can I be too high in rank to dine with the servants, but too low to dine with the family” to encapsulate this sentiment.

Alongside her is an amazing supporting cast, offering some of the best casting in the history of period pieces. Playing her aunt and uncle are Emily Watson Tom Wilkinson, who both have a harshness about them that works perfectly in the progression of Belle winning them over as a child. Her cousin is played by the equally gorgeous Sarah Gadon, who is also allowed to shine in many of her scenes. Briefly playing Belle’s father is Matthew Goode, whose appearance, though limited, does beg the question why he is not featured more prominently in many more films. Embracing his villainous side, Tom Felton plays one of the wealthy brothers courting the two women, who is never able to see past his hatred for the color of Belle’s skin. Lastly, drawing the obvious line to “Downton Abbey” even clearer is the casting of Penelope Wilton, longtime “Abbey” alum, as the spinster of the household, Lady Mary Murray. Together, helping to lift Gugu Mbatha-Raw to her best possible performance, “Belle” feels like an event rather than a “Downton Abbey” ripoff, complete with moral dilemmas and pertinent subject matter about race and justice all while providing a glimpse into the 1700’s. With such a huge career ahead of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Belle” marks one of the best stepping off points an actress could ask for.

[Directed by Amma Asante] [PG] [104 min] [2 May 2014]   08four-stars

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